Alienation

"The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man." R.D. Laing

"The evolution of human consciousness would be impossible - unthinkable - without the alienations introduced by writing, print, and the electronic transformation of the word." Walter J. Ong

By alienation I mean a state of disconnection from self and world such that a very great deal of one's life is spent in the living of an illusion. It is a state of being deeply and unconsciously submerged in a postmodern variety of maya (see Narada's story) where one mistakes the current incomplete map (see Imagine) for the whole of the territory. It is important to note, however, that alientation is not an evil. It is, in fact, a necessary waypoint on the human journey into consciousness. Walter J. Ong, in his writings (The Barbarian Within, 1962; Interfaces of the Word, 1977) on the evolution of consciousness as we passed from a condition of "primary orality" (no knowledge of or exposure to writing or print) to the modern condition, where our thoughtforms themselves are chirographically shaped, has made the point of alienation's utility. For example in Interfaces of the Word:

"Alienation, cleavage, is not all bad. To understand other things and themselves, to grow, human beings need not only proximity [including, I might add, awareness of participation, i.e., awareness of perception in the mode of causal efficacy], but also distance, even from themselves. Out of alienation, and only out of alienation, certain greater unities can come. Persons at ease with their origins and with their own unconscious welcome certain alienations, for they can put them to good use. The evolution of human consciousness would be impossible - unthinkable - without the alienations introduced by writing, print, and the electronic transformation of the word."

R. D. Laing has provided one of the most powerful descriptions of the disutility of alienation:

"What we call 'normal' is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience...It is radically estranged from the structure of being.
     There are forms of alienation that are relatively strange to statistically 'normal' forms of alienation.  The 'normally' alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane.   Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labeled by the 'normal' majority as bad or mad.
     The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man.
     Society highly values its normal man.  It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal.
     Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of fellow normal men in the last fifty years.
     Our behavior is a function of our experience.  We act according to the way we see things.
     If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive.
     If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves...

     A man can estrange himself from himself by mystifying himself and others.  He can also have what he does stolen from him by the agency of others.
     If we are stripped of experience, we are stripped of our deeds; and if our deeds are, so to speak, taken out of our hands like toys from the hands of children, we are bereft of our humanity...Men can and do destroy the humanity of other men, and the condition of this possibility is that we are interdependent.  We are not self-contained monads producing no effects on each other...Each of us is the other to the others.  Man is a patient-agent, agent-patient, interexperiencing and interacting with his fellows...

     Personal action can either open out possibilities of enriched experience or it can shut off possibilities.  Personal action is either predominantly validating, confirming, encouraging, supportive, enhancing, or it is invalidating, denying, discouraging, undermining and constricting.  It can be creative or destructive.
     In a world were the normal condition is one of alienation, most personal action must be destructive both of one's own experience and that of the other."  (R.D. Laing [1967], The Politics of Experience, New York: Ballentine Books, pgs. 27-28, 29-30, 34.)

Another way in which alienation manifests itself is in the failure of individuals, especially scientists, to distinguish between what they know about self and world and their models of self and world.  For a scientist, a failure to distinguish between the territory and the map is tantamount to claiming an unwarranted high level of certainty, i.e., converting knowledge into belief by means of faith in unverifiable propositions. It is presumptuous of a lackluster universe, most often one composed of mere matter with simple location.  Such is the manner in which science becomes a religion.  Noam Chomsky touched on the roles of such individuals in his book, Deterring Democracy, where he was talking about foreign policy "experts," but the description seems more broadly applicable.

"In practice, the 'expert' is the loyal and useful servant of those who hold the reins of power."
"In a well-functioning state capitalist democracy like the United States, what might frighten the men of property is generally kept far from the public eye...the essential professional task and responsibility of the intellectual community [is] to shape the perceived historical record and the picture of the contemporary world in the interests of the powerful, thus ensuring that the public, properly bewildered, keeps to its place and function." Noam Chomsky [1991,2], Deterring Democracy, New York: Hill & Wang, pgs. 253, 359.

Daniel Quinn in his book, The Story of B, wherein he describes the difficulties that arise for a group of individuals who try to openly discuss the reasons for the approaching collapse of civilization, equates alienation with forgetting:

"What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not that humans had evolved from other species. There isn't the slightest reason to think that Paleolithic humans or Mesolithic humans guessed that they had evolved. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was the fact that, before the advent of agriculture and village life, humans had lived in a profoundly different way...Paleontology exposed the Great Forgetting...by making it unarguably clear that humans had been around long, long, long, before any conceivable date for the planting of the first crop and the beginning of civilization." (Daniel Quinn [1996], The Story of B: An Adventure of Mind and Spirit, New York: Bantam, pgs. 244-45.)

This is compatible with the Sufi maxim:

"Everything is dependent on remembering. One does not begin by learning, one starts by remembrance. The distance of eternal existence and the difficulties of life cause one to forget. It is for this reason God has commanded us: ‘Remember!’" (Sheikh Ismail Hakki, cited in Indries Shah, The Way of the Sufi, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970, pg. 245)

It is also compatible with this recent description of contemporary American life in an article in the The New York Times Magazine:

"The theme of all this - and much of what is new in the market - is that groups are narrower and defined by interests and that the ultimate interest is ...Me! The main thing about Me! is that he always gets what he wants, or at any rate what he thinks he wants...the black box is ideally suited suited for American life as it is currently configured, when consumer choice has been exalted to a fetish." (Michael Lewis [2000], Boom box, The New York Times Magazine, August 13, pg. 36.)

Modified 12/11/2001