Is Alienation Inevitable or Escapable? Jamming, 05/11/2017

Alienation is a word with many different meanings. We use it – the ideas and images it evokes – to unpack a lot of fairly different concepts. That versatility makes the word very useful, but also very dangerous because it’s so easily misunderstood.

Here are a few examples.

What we take to be a hallucination, an illusion, is in fact the real.
What appears solid is a practical instinct that more careful
observation shows has very limited scope and application.
Real knowledge shows us that everything is connected,
interdependent, flows into each other, can sense each other.
When I brought Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to Palgrave a few years ago, one of the proposal reviewers kept talking about marxism. Now, I was using the word ‘alienation’ in an environmental philosophy context.

It’s a book on environmental ethics. But some folks, they see a word that has some deep marxist associations and they fly straight to marxism. The conversation with the reviewer turned out fine.

A lot of academics are surprised when I write back to journal and book line editors telling them their reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. But it’s surprisingly effective.

So what’s underneath all those different definitions of alienation – the orthodox marxist, the popular lefty, the environmentalist / ecological, and other philosophical approaches? Think about it this way – What’s the experience or the state of mind that all these technical conceptions of alienation describe different aspects of?

There’s a passage in The Human Condition that, as far as I can tell, nails this description. Arendt talks about the peculiarly modern chasm between the nature of the world and our experience of it.

The last few centuries of research institutions have discovered more about the universe than we’ve ever known before. We’re able to observe planets orbiting stars all over our galaxy. We’re investigating the smallest, most elusive particles in our universe.

We’ve developed such comprehensive knowledge of how life works on a molecular level. We’re on our way toward a similarly comprehensive knowledge of life ecologically. All of that builds our medical knowledge. We understand the processes and flows by which our planet holds itself together and pulls itself apart.

Confronted by the ALie Nation
The subjects and the citizens
See the material religions through trauma and numb
Nothing is related
All the things of the earth and in the sky
Have energy to be exploited
Even themselves, mining their spirits into souls sold
Into nothing is sacred, not even their self
And I’m being way too quick about these different venues of knowledge. Only listing them to blow your minds a little by reminding you of how powerful our knowledge has become.

We’re learned an enormous amount about the universe. But it’s put pretty much all our experience to the lie. When we walk on the Earth, it feels solid to us. But our ground floats on a globe of molten rock – liquid. Objects feel solid, but they’re composed mostly of empty space, kept separate by electromagnetic fields.

Really, it would be more accurate to describe reality as the interaction – integration, interpenetration – of fields instead of objects. That we’re a dynamic reality where everything is constantly in flux. Alienation rises in us because our reality feels different to us.

We experience solid bodies. We experience stability, not flux. Flux, change, dynamism all tends to disturb us. But that’s the way the world really is.

So we’re left with another example of the traditional distinction in Western philosophy. Really, it’s the distinction that defines Western philosophy – one problem running through the entire tradition. Appearance and reality.

That chasm is our fundamental alienation. Something that we’re supposed to or actually do experience as a harmony turns out to be a chaotic discord. The solidity of the world is an illusion. No, not an illusion – a lie that we tell ourselves and convince ourselves from our earliest experiences.

A lie into which we’re socialized from birth. Our knowledge that gives us so much power also shows that the harmony we felt with the world is utterly unreal. As Arendt quotes Werner Heisenberg, all we have are our instruments and ourselves.

Expecting the world to be one way, we discover that it’s totally different. The ways we understood the world – so common that it feels intuitive, that we raise our children instinctively to believe in the world this way – are actually nonsense. Our subjectivities schizz from the world.

How do you heal this wound in our knowledge and self-conception? It may be as easy and as difficult as throwing that false instinct away. Understand the world as energy, flux, flow, and interdependence, multiplicity without hierarchy or rank. See what you can become then.

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