Saturday, 26 March 2011


Bar Europa, in Guatemala City


The term 'folklore' is nothing but a hypocrisy of the 'civilised' who won't take part in the game, and who want to hide their refusal to make contact under the mantle of respect for the picturesque...
Man is irrevocably a stranger to dawn. It needed our colonial way of thinking to believe that man could have remained faithful to his beginnings and that there was any place in the world where he could encounter the essence of the 'primitive'. (trans. Clare O'Farrell)
Michel Foucault, (1994) [1963]. 'Veilleur de la nuit des hommes'. In Dits et Ecrits vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, p. 232.

Close Encounters March 2011 London

 First, disobey; then write on the walls. 
(Law of 10 May 1968) I don’t like to write on walls. Write everywhere. Before writing, learn to think. I don’t know how to write but I would like to say beautiful things and I don’t know how. I don’t have time to write!!! I have something to say but I don’t know what. Freedom is the right to silence. We are all “undesirables.” We must remain “unadapted.” The forest precedes man, the desert follows him. Under the paving stones, the beach. Concrete breeds apathy. Coming soon to this location: charming ruins. Hide yourself, object! Art is dead, don’t consume its corpse. Art is dead, let’s liberate our everyday life. Art is dead, Godard can’t change that. Godard: the supreme Swiss Maoist jerk. Permanent cultural vibration. We want a wild and ephemeral music. 
 We propose a fundamental regeneration: 
concert strikes, 
sound gatherings with collective investigation. 
 Abolish copyrights: sound structures belong to everyone.


The ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration: to see human beings liberated from their alienation... The individual will reach total consciousness as a social being, which is equivalent to the full realization as a human creature, once the chains of alienation are broken. This will be translated concretely into the reconquering of one's true nature through liberated labor, and the expression of one's own human condition through culture and art. "
Che Guevara, Marxist revolutionary [1]
Marx articulated his theory of alienation most clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology (1846). Marx identifies three aspects of alienation, namely private property, the commodity character of labour, and the division of labour in society (Ekerwald, 1998: 17). In the concept's most prominent use, it refers to the alienation of people from aspects of their "human nature" (Gattungswesen, usually translated as 'species-essence' or 'species-being'). Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism. His theory relies on Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841), which argues that the idea of God has alienated the characteristics of the human being. Stirner would take the analysis further in The Ego and Its Own (1844), declaring that even 'humanity' is an alienating ideal for the individual, to which Marx and Engels responded in The German Ideology (1845).
Marx's Theory of Alienation is based upon his observation that in emerging industrial production under capitalism, workers inevitably lose control of their lives and selves, in not having any control of their work. Workers never become autonomous, self-realized human beings in any significant sense, except the way the bourgeois want the worker to be realized. Alienation in capitalist societies occurs because in work each contributes to the common wealth, but can only express this fundamentally social aspect of individuality through a production system that is not publicly social, but privately owned, for which each individual functions as an instrument, not as a social being.
There is a commonly noted problem of translation in grappling with ideas of alienation derived from German-language philosophical texts: the word alienation, and similar words such as estrangement, are often used to translate two quite distinct German words, Entfremdung and Entäußerung, interchangeably.

[edit] Late 1800s-1900s

Many sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th century were concerned about alienating effects of modernization. German sociologists Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies wrote critical works on individualization and urbanization. Simmel's "Philosophie des Geldes" ("Philosophy of Money") describes how relationships become more and more mediated through money. Tönnies' "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft" ("Community and Society") is about the loss of primary relationships such as familial bonds in favour of goal oriented secondary relationships. This idea of alienation can be observed in some other contexts, although the term may not be as frequently used. In the context of an individual's relations within society, alienation can mean the unresponsiveness of the society as a whole to the individuality of each member of the society. When collective decisions are made, it is usually impossible for the unique needs of each person to be taken into account. This form of alienation was criticized by many of the Young Hegelians.[citation needed]
In a broader philosophical context, especially in existentialism and phenomenology, alienation describes the inadequacy of human being or mind in relation to the world. The human mind, as the subject of perception, relates to the world as an object of its perception, and so is distanced from the world rather than living within it. This line of thought can be found in Søren Kierkegaard, who examined the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. Many 20th-century philosophers, both theistic and atheistic, and theologians drew many concepts from Kierkegaard, including the notions of angst, despair, and the importance of the individual. Martin Heidegger's concepts of anxiety (Angst) and mortality drew on Kierkegaard and are indebted to the way in which the latter lays out the importance of our subjective relation to truth, our existence in the face of death, the temporality of existence, and the importance of passionate affirmation of one's individual being-in-the-world.
Jean-Paul Sartre described the "thing-in-itself" which is infinite and overflowing, and claimed that any attempt to describe or understand the thing-in-itself is "reflective consciousness." Since there is no way for the reflective consciousness to subsume the pre-reflective, Sartre argued that all reflection is fated to a form of anxiety, i.e. the human condition. As well, Sartre argued that when a person tries to gain knowledge of the "Other" (meaning beings or objects that are not the self), their self consciousness has a "masochistic desire" to be limited, which is expressed metaphorically in the famous line of dialogue from the play No Exit, "Hell is other people."


Melvin Seeman was part of the surge in alienation research prominent in the middle of the 20th century when he published his paper, On the Meaning of Alienation, in the American Sociological Review in 1959 (Senekal, 2010b: 7-8). Seeman used the insights of Marx, Durkheim and others to construct what is often considered a model of alienation consisting of five aspects: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement. Seeman later added a sixth element, cultural estrangement, although this element does not feature prominently in later discussions of Seeman's work.


Powerlessness refers to “the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behaviour cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or reinforcements, he seeks” (Seeman, 1959: 784). Seeman argues that this is “the notion of alienation as it originated in the Marxian view of the worker’s condition in capitalist society: the worker is alienated to the extent that the prerogative and means of decision are expropriated by the ruling entrepreneurs" (Ibid.). Put more succinctly, Kalekin-Fishman (1996: 97) says, “A person suffers from alienation in the form of ‘powerlessness’ when she is conscious of the gap between what she would like to do and what she feels capable of doing”. In discussing powerlessness, Seeman also incorporated the insights of the psychologist Julian Rotter, who distinguishes between internal control and external control, which “points to differences (among persons or situations) in the degree to which success or failure is attributable to external factors (e.g. luck, chance, or powerful others), as against success or failure that is seen as the outcome of one’s personal skills or characteristics” (Seeman, 1966: 355). Powerlessness is therefore the perception that the individual does not have the means to achieve his goals.


Meaninglessness refers to “the individual’s sense of understanding events in which he is engaged” (Seeman, 1959: 786). Seeman (1959: 786) writes that meaninglessness, “is characterized by a low expectancy that satisfactory predictions about the future outcomes of behaviour can be made. Put more simply, where the first meaning of alienation refers to the sensed ability to control outcomes, this second meaning refers essentially to the sensed ability to predict behavioural outcomes.” In this respect, meaninglessness is therefore closely tied to powerlessness, Seeman (Ibid.) argues, “the view that one lives in an intelligible world might be a prerequisite to expectancies for control; and the unintelligibility of complex affairs is presumably conducive to the development of high expectancies for external control (that is, high powerlessness)”.


Normlessness or what Durkheim referred to as anomie “denotes the situation in which the social norms regulating individual conduct have broken down or are no longer effective as rules for behaviour” (Seeman, 1959: 787). This aspect refers to the inability to identify with the dominant values of society, or rather with what are perceived to be the dominant values of society. Seeman (1959: 788) adds that this aspect can manifest in a particularly negative manner, “The anomic situation [...] may be defined as one in which there is a high expectancy that socially unapproved behaviours are required to achieve given goals”. This negative manifestation is dealt with in detail by Catherine Ross and John Mirowski in a series of publications on mistrust, powerlessness, normlessness and crime. See also Senekal's (2010b: 102-123) chapter on alienation in London Fields by Martin Amis.

Social isolation

Social isolation refers to “The feeling of being segregated from one’s community” (Kalekin-Fishman, 1996: 97). Neal & Collas (2000: 114) emphasize the centrality of social isolation in the modern world, “While social isolation is typically experienced as a form of personal stress, its sources are deeply embedded in the social organization of the modern world. With increased isolation and atomization , much of our daily interactions are with those who are strangers to us and with whom we lack any ongoing social relationships.”


Self-estrangement is “the psychological state of denying one’s own interests – of seeking out extrinsically satisfying, rather than intrinsically satisfying, activities [...]”(Kalekin-Fishman, 1996: 97). The following section discusses self-estrangement in more detail

After Seeman

After the boom in alienation research that characterized the 1950s and 1960s, interest in alienation research subsided (Geyer, 1996: xii), but was maintained by the Research Committee on Alienation of the International Sociological Association (ISA), a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific study in the field of sociology and social sciences. In the 1990s, there was again an upsurge of interest in alienation, prompted by the fall of the Soviet Union, globalization, the information explosion, increasing awareness of ethnic conflicts, and post-modernism (see Geyer, 1996). Geyer believes the growing complexity of the contemporary world together with post-modernism prompted a reinterpretation of alienation that suits the contemporary living environment, as illustrated in the following reinterpretations of Seeman's original five aspects of alienation:

Post-modern powerlessness

Geyer (1996: xxiii) remarks, “a new type of powerlessness has emerged, where the core problem is no longer being unfree but rather being unable to select from among an overchoice of alternatives for action, whose consequences one often cannot even fathom.” Geyer adapts cybernetics to alienation theory, and writes (1996: xxiv) that powerlessness is the result of delayed feedback, “The more complex one’s environment, the later one is confronted with the latent, and often unintended, consequences of one’s actions. Consequently, in view of this causality-obscuring time lag, both the ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ for one’s actions increasingly tend to be viewed as random, often with apathy and alienation as a result.”

Post-modern meaninglessness

Geyer (1996: xxiii) believes meaninglessness should be reinterpreted as well, "With the accelerating throughput of information [...] meaningless is not a matter anymore of whether one can assign meaning to incoming information, but of whether one can develop adequate new scanning mechanisms to gather the goal-relevant information one needs, as well as more efficient selection procedures to prevent being overburdened by the information one does not need, but is bombarded with on a regular basis." Information overload or the so-called data tsunami are well-known information problems confronting contemporary man, and Geyer thus argues that meaninglessness is turned on its head.

Post-modern normlessness

Neal & Collas (2000: 122) write, “Normlessness derives partly from conditions of complexity and conflict in which individuals become unclear about the composition and enforcement of social norms. Sudden and abrupt changes occur in life conditions, and the norms that usually operate may no longer seem adequate as guidelines for conduct”. This is a particular issue after the fall of the Soviet Union, mass migrations from developing to developed countries, and the general sense of disillusionment that characterized the 1990s (Senekal, 2011). Traditional values that had already been questioned throughout especially the 1960s were met with further scepticism in the 1990s, resulting in a situation where individuals rely more often on their own judgement than on institutions of authority: "The individual not only has become more independent of the churches, but from other social institutions as well. The individual can make more personal choices in far more life situations than before” (Halman, 1998: 100). These choices are not necessarily 'negative': Halman's study found that Europeans remain relatively conservative morally, even though the authority of the Church and other institutions has eroded. See especially Langman's study of punk, porn, and resistance (2008) and Senekal's (2011) study of Afrikaans extreme metal.

Post-modern social isolation

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, migrants from Eastern Europe and the developing countries have flocked to developed countries in search of a better living standard. This has led to entire communities becoming uprooted: no longer fully part of their homelands, but neither integrated into their adopted communities. Diaspora literature depicts the plights of these migrants, such as Hafid Bouazza in Paravion. Senekal (2010b: 41) argues, "Low-income communities or religious minorities may feel separated from mainstream society, leading to backlashes such as the civil unrest that occurred in French cities in October 2005. The fact that the riots subsequently spread to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Greece, and Switzerland, illustrates that not only did these communities feel segregated from mainstream society, but also that they found a community in their isolation; they regarded themselves as kindred spirits."

Post-modern self-estrangement

Seeman (1959) recognized the problems inherent in constructing a definition of the 'self', but post-modernism in particular emphasized the difficulty of pin-pointing what precisely 'self' constitutes. Gergen (1996: 125) argues that the very concept of alienation should therefore be rethought, “the traditional view of self versus society is deeply problematic and should be replaced by a conception of the self as always already immersed in relatedness. On this account, the individual’s lament of ‘not belonging’ is partially a by-product of traditional discourses themselves”. If the self is relationally constituted, does it make sense to speak of self-estrangement rather than social isolation? Senekal (2010b) opted for an omission of self-estrangement in his discussion of alienation in contemporary British fiction, for this very reason. However, Costas and Fleming (2009: 354) note that although the concept of self-estrangement “has not weathered postmodern criticisms of essentialism and economic determinism well”, the concept still has value if a Lacanian reading of the self is adopted.

  1. ^ "Socialism and Man in Cuba" A letter to Carlos Quijano, editor of Marcha, a weekly published in Montevideo, Uruguay; published as "From Algiers, for Marcha: The Cuban Revolution Today" by Che Guevara on March 12, 1965

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