New York, 1955. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum


A history of alienation

In the postwar period it was understood to be the fundamental malaise of modern life. Why aren’t we ‘alienated’ any more?

by Martin Jay + BIO

New York, 1955. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

The fear of ‘alienation’ from a perceived state of harmony has a long and winding history. Western culture is replete with stories of expulsion from paradise and a yearning to return, from Adam and Eve’s departure from the Garden of Eden to the epic journey of Odysseus back to Ithaca. In the modern era, ‘alienation’ really came into its own as a talismanic term in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, the United States was becoming increasingly affluent, and earlier markers of oppression – poverty, inequality, social immobility, religious persecution – appeared to be on the wane. Commentators and intellectuals needed a new way to characterise and explain discontent. Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the incidence of words in English-language books, shows ‘alienation’ rising spectacularly from 1958 to its height in 1974. But since then it has dropped like a stone. Why? Does the lexical decline of alienation suggest that the condition itself has been conquered – or merely that the context in which it made sense has now changed beyond recognition?

The word alienation derives from the Latin verb alienare – to take away, remove, make a thing belong to another. It had a wide variety of earlier uses, including the transfer of property, estrangement from God, a mental disorder and interpersonal discord (‘alienation of affection’ even became a legal ground for divorce). Philosophers and theologians from Augustine to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Søren Kierkegaard had mulled over its metaphysical and spiritual implications. Later, modern sociologists such as Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber worried that alienation was a byproduct of a post-industrial society. It could be seen in widespread ‘anomie’, the ‘tragedy of culture’, and the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic rationalisation.

After the Second World War, alienation came to betoken a near-universal spiritual and psychological malaise. Existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre used it to describe a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Novelists such as Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger (1942), demonstrated its effects in the indifferent numbness of casual violence. By the time J D Salinger released his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a chronicle of adolescent estrangement featuring the anti-hero Holden Caulfield, alienation was invoked to explain everything from juvenile delinquency and galloping divorce rates to voter apathy and substance abuse. The term was taken to define the fundamental pathology of modern life.

However, it was the influence of Karl Marx that eventually transformed alienation from indefinable malaise to concrete social condition. In his so-called Paris Manuscripts, written in 1844 but only discovered between the two world wars, Marx developed a three-pronged critique of the alienation of labour – the source, he claimed, of all other alienations in the capitalist world. In Marx’s taxonomy of alienation, first came the worker’s loss of control over the product of his or her labour, which was sold as a commodity in the marketplace for the profit of the capitalist. Second was his or her estrangement from the creative process of labouring itself; before the radical division of labour and inhumane efficiency of the assembly line, work was not a mere means of survival, but something in which pre-capitalist artisans found intrinsic reward. The third and final kind of alienation involves quashing the collective solidarity of the community, what Marx called human’s ‘species being’, and which was lost with the rise of competitive individualism.

On the strength of these insights, a school of thought known as ‘Marxist Humanism’ rose to prominence in the 1960s. This moved Marxism’s centre of gravity away from structures of economic exploitation and towards broader questions of lived experience. Marxist Humanism was advanced by thinkers such as Erich Fromm, who questioned Marx’s status as a scientific analyst of historical facts, and preferred to use his early writings as a way of probing how capitalism distorts the nature of human relations.

The prevailing assumption behind all of these accounts was that feeling estranged – whether from one’s personal or communal identity, one’s creations, or the human species as a whole – was a reason for profound dismay. Alienation could suggest, among other things, the domination of the subject by the object, the self by the other, the organic by the mechanical, and the living by the dead. Understood psychologically, socially, religiously or philosophically, it was a painful obstacle to feeling whole or at one with the world. Being settled in an identity and comfortable in one’s skin were taken as preferable to being rootless, dispossessed or self-fractured. For the lucky few cosmopolitans, rootlessness might have meant being at home everywhere – but for those who felt like permanent exiles, it meant being at home nowhere.

Conversely, overcoming alienation was accompanied by the achievement of self-transparency, authenticity, personal integrity and solidarity. Stories from the Bible and mythology, when viewed from the end-point of the tale, often cast the years of wandering as what Christian doctrine called a felix culpa or ‘fortunate fall’. Perhaps alienation could be justified as an episode in a longer arc of redemption, in which the loss of naïve unity enables us to attain a higher, more reflective form of wholeness. Alienation could be interpreted in terms of a kind of theodicy, in which partial evil serves a more all-embracing good.

Yet the state of alienation remained the ‘unhappy consciousness’, in the words of G W F Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). It was still inferior to either pre-lapsarian grace or post-lapsarian redemption. Whatever its function in the larger narrative, its victims still yearned for a homecoming that would end their estrangement.

So why aren’t we ‘alienated’ anymore? How did this broad consensus lose its hegemonic power in the 1970s? What made the American historian David Steigerwald wonder in 2011: ‘Where have you gone, Holden Caulfield?’ Was it fatigue with a concept whose explanatory power and emotional charge had been spent? Was it the realisation that other, unrelated sources of oppression were yet to be vanquished? Or had alienation become a self-indulgent luxury, now that living standards were not necessarily rising from one generation to the next?

These factors almost certainly played a part; but it’s worth dwelling on three key historical turning points. The first comes from within the discourse of Marxist Humanism itself. Earlier, its exponents had seized upon alienation as a promising antidote to the pseudo-scientistic pretensions and fetishism of the economy, which they believed discredited the Soviet version of ‘dialectical materialism’. Ironically, however, just as alienation was rising to prominence among Marxists in the 1960s, another anxiety was emerging to challenge its appeal. According to its critics, late-capitalist society offered the subjugated a sort of pseudo-contentment, a simulacrum of a non-alienated utopia, a palliative for their condition that undermined the class struggle.

What was needed was more discomfort with the world and less feeling at home in it

This is what the Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W Adorno called ‘the culture industry’: the way that Hegel’s ‘unhappy consciousness’ had been masked by the pleasures of mass culture and consumption, preventing its victims from feeling the pangs of their true condition. In One-Dimensional Man (1964), the philosopher Herbert Marcuse lamented the deadening effects of ‘advanced industrial civilisation’. ‘[In] its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction,’ he wrote, ‘the extent to which this civilisation transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable.’

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, a committed Marxist, had anticipated this bleak assessment of culture. His notion of ‘epic theatre’ sought to reverse the ideological grip of traditional, ‘culinary theatre’, which Brecht despised for the way it fostered empathetic identification with dramatic characters. In response, Brecht developed what he called a Verfremdungseffekt or ‘estrangement effect’ to disrupt precisely this pattern (the German Verfremdung was a variant of Entfremdung, the term normally translated as alienation). Actors refused to conceal the fact that they were acting, and they frequently breached the fourth wall separating the stage from the audience in order to foreground the artifice of the production.

By undermining the realist illusion and preventing emotional identification with characters, Brecht de-familiarised the familiar, and forced the audience to reflect critically on unjust conditions beyond the world of art. What was needed, he argued, was more discomfort with the world and less feeling at home in it – more reflective estrangement and less aesthetic comfort food. At the very least, that’s what was required until the spell of false consciousness was broken, phoney gratifications revealed for what they were, and our true state of alienation exposed so as to open the path to true healing.

Such arguments were still rooted in the idea that alienation was a pathological condition, one that ultimately needed to be redressed. But what if the alleged healing was itself ideological? This more radical riposte to the notion of alienation emerged in the theories that came to be called ‘post-structuralism’. Despite all their complexities and diversity, the thinkers within this rubric shared a common distrust of a key assumption: that a unified, holistic self or community was inherently superior to their opposites.

A rejection of unity can be seen in the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities. This began to loom in the 1970s and took inspiration from many different theories of language: ordinary language philosophy, hermeneutics, universal pragmatics, speech-act theory and the ‘deconstruction’ of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. This last movement was viewed as the vanguard of post-structuralism, and underpinned by a suspicion of the universal, knowing human subject which sat at the heart of traditional humanism. Proponents doubted that we could grasp a ‘reality’ unfiltered by culture and language. And if there were no access to reality without the welter of linguistic ambiguities and differences, it must also be impossible to bridge the gap between consciousness and being, thought and its objects, humans and the world they had created. What Friedrich Nietzsche had called ‘the prison-house of language’ offered no escape, or to put it in the oft-cited terms of Derrida, ‘there is no outside-text’. Rather than spurring an end to alienation, then, the linguistic turn suggested there was no alternative.

Alienation also denotes the corrosion of a coherent, autonomous self, a strong and sovereign entity

Around this time, the currents of psychoanalysis were also shifting. Jacques Lacan’s linguistic reading of Sigmund Freud cast doubt on the value of individual autonomy and integrity. Lacan argued that Freud’s ideal of ‘the whole man’ as a model of healthy development could be traced to the lingering memory of a pre-linguistic period in infantile development, which Lacan called ‘the mirror stage’. Produced by the child’s glee at glimpsing its bodily image distinct from its mother, the mirror stage fed a nostalgia for an imaginary paradise of narcissistic bliss. This reading was reminiscent of how the existentialists cast alienation as inherent in the human condition; but note how its negative valence had been reversed. For now, accepting fissures in the human condition, and abandoning fantasies of reconciliation, redemption and integration, were a mark of maturation and a healthy acceptance of the human condition. With entry into language, or what Lacan called ‘the symbolic’, the gap between signifier and signified became an expression of the split inherent in human consciousness.

Post-structuralism had its critics, including the second-generation Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas. But such thinkers added to the skepticism by rejecting the Marxist Humanist claim that the alienation of labour was at the root of all social pathologies. Following his own interpretation of the linguistic turn, Habermas argued that, alongside the dialectic of labour, there was also a dialectic of communication. Humans interacted through symbolic media that could produce agreement about meanings and intentions, or pathologies of misunderstanding. Interaction between people was not the same as the subject’s fashioning of the material world into objects for use or consumption.

The old Marxist formula of a cultural ‘superstructure’ – entirely dependent on an economic ‘substructure’ – had mistakenly prioritised the production of material goods as the essential model of human action. Ending capitalist economic exploitation was a laudable goal, but other sources of conflict – political, religious, cultural and the like – couldn’t be addressed by ending the alienation of labour. Nor could they be resolved by the homecoming of an alienated subject to his or her pre-alienated wholeness, because they relied on ‘wholeness’ being forever in the future. Thus, along with his post-structuralist opponents, Habermas and his followers abandoned the assumption that de-alienation was a mark of an emancipated society.

One additional cause of the waning popularity of alienation deserves further attention. Hidden in the word itself is an anxiety about the power of the other, the foreigner, the stranger – in short, ‘the alien’. This figure, it is implied, threatens to invade, pollute and disrupt the purity of the homogeneous individual or group. And this, at a time of global migration on a massive scale – generated by political unrest, economic desperation or natural disasters – arouses fears that are never far from the surface of most enduring communities. Alienation has come to suggest not only the loss of control over what one has produced or the exile from one’s traditions or tribal integrity; it also denotes the corrosion of a coherent, autonomous self, a strong and sovereign entity that has mastered or abjected its internal otherness. It implies the superiority of the domestic over the foreign, the friend over the stranger, the settled over the vagabond.

But in an era of fluid modernity, defined by incessant change, why should sameness and identity be preferred over otherness and difference? What if the purity of the community and the self came under suspicion as ideologies of restriction and exclusion? What if hybridity came to be preferred to polar oppositions and categorical distinctions? What if hospitality to the alien was privileged over the imperative to defend the homeland against alleged intruders? Accepting the stranger within, the other in the self, could then be credited as a sign of maturity. The weakening of the discourse of alienation reflected these changes in the cultural climate.

When the Left embraced tolerance of difference, it grew wary of stigmatising the alien – including the alien within

Of course, in an increasingly unsettled world, it would be foolish to claim that literal homelessness and displacement should be celebrated as inherent values in themselves. There is simply too much suffering caused by forced migration, and too much stress involved in the assimilation of those who have lost their homes under duress. For all its potential to sow division, identity politics might still reflect a justifiable search for roots and community. But it’s also true that many now celebrate the freedom to alter identities rather than meekly accept them, and that post-identitarian multiplicity is enjoying a renewal. Such discourses repudiate or at least complicate a simple denunciation of alienation from wholeness.

This change is most clearly registered in political terms. In the heyday of Marxist Humanism, alienation could be understood in terms of the capitalist mode of production, which thwarted the possibility of unalienated labour. But eventually the Left came to de-emphasise class, for better or worse, and substitute questions of culture for those of production. When Leftist politics embraced tolerance of difference, it grew wary of stigmatising the alien – including the alien within. Rather than yearning for ‘well-rounded wholeness’ or a comforting immersion in the warm bath of communal uniformity, this political shift meant recognising the virtues of protean personal identities and diasporic dispersion.

Hostility to the alien ‘other’, both without and within, has now migrated to the populist Right. Those who most loudly broadcast their alienation today, infusing it with rage and resentment, are likely to be from once-comfortable and hegemonic segments of the population. They feel threatened by the growing erosion of their status in a society that they remember – or at least claim to remember – as homogeneous, integrated and settled. Religious, ethnic, national and gender identities become more rigidly defended against perceived erosion. Many people panic when faced with fluid selves that embrace rather than bemoan the ‘alien’ within – expressed, for example, in their passionate resistance to transgender identity. And they are even more unnerved by the literal arrival of non-citizen ‘aliens’, legal as well as illegal, who threaten their alleged ethnic purity and cultural unity. For them, ‘hybridisation’ is really ‘mongrelisation’. Attempting to restore past ‘greatness’ or fend off ‘pollution’, they agitate for walls to keep dangerous others out, fearing that every newcomer is inherently a threatening intruder.

In short, alienation in the second decade of the 21st century has not actually faded away as a descriptor of human distress. Rather, it has become most visible in the anxiety of those who bemoan the transformation of a beloved homeland into an unrecognisable nation of aliens.