Friday 12 May 2017

Our world of alienation


The main problem now, and for a couple of hundred years, is alienation. It is more obvious now than ever before, because so many people have led lives of peace, comfort, convenience and prosperity – lives that might have seemed paradisal to those in the past. Yet people are deeply discontented; and indeed expend great time and effort on distracting themselves and in blotting out consciousness with intoxication.

Materialism says we ought to be happy and fulfilled; but daily, hourly experience is of emptiness, meaninglessness, purposelessness and disconnection. Modern people are lonely from simple lack of human contact with those (mostly family) who love them; but modern people are also existentially lonely in the deep sense that even when surrounded by others, they feel cut-off – even when surrounded by pleasures and comforts, they are pressed-upon by a horrible recognition that it is all arbitrary, futile, temporary…

Some of us can remember times in our childhood when this was not so; when everything around us was alive, conscious – we were part of the world and the world was extended from us. Life might be pleasurable or miserable; but it meant something, and it was going somewhere – and we were immersed in this process, an integral part of it.

This childhood relation to reality was not, of course, an explicit awareness – indeed that was a vital part of its reality. Our lack of awareness of our selves as separate was the reason why we experienced life as an undivided whole. And it was the incremental increase in self-awareness which caused us to become cut-off from the world: which led to us regarding the rest of the world as things rather than beings.

Indeed, so extreme is the alienation of the modern world that not only do we regard the rest of reality as things – we even regard ourselves as things. In public discourse it is normal, in a sense compulsory (if you don’t want to be seen as crazy) to speak of humans as accidental products of contingent evolutionary processes, as passive ‘victims’ of our childhood experiences; and of personality and ability and uniqueness as being the kind of information pattern that could n principle be downloaded into a computer, or transferred to another person.

In fact we are even alienated from our own thoughts - which means that we don't trust the content of our own minds. This is common nowadays, indeed regarded as sophisticated. Yet - in a world-historical perspective - this is a quite extraordinary situation. And, unless the intrinsic absurdity and nihilism is explicitly recognised, it is a hellish trap from which we cannot ever escape, because we do not perceive that we are trapped.

The expression ‘meat robot’ encapsulates this mainstream world view – the view underpinning the mass media; the single, linked mega-bureaucracy of the modern state; the world of mainstream arts and ideas… it is constantly pressing upon us as an underlying and mostly explicitly-denied anti-reality.

Our thought world is one in which everything solid and objective points to the meaninglessness, purposelessness and isolation of life – that our life is indeed an illusion, a self-deception – and at the same time all this is being implicitly denied by the demands for our compassion, generosity, hard work, good behaviour… and all the idealisms of mainstream politics which must be taken with the utmost seriousness – egalitarianism, anti-sexism, anti-racism… all that socio-political stuff we ‘meat robots’ are supposed to be committed to, to sacrifice our livelihoods and futures to…

Alienation is a nightmare – a self-contradictory state which imposes itself and denies itself simultaneously. We are blamed for not being contented with materialism, and it is demanded that we feel and express ‘concern’ for vague ideals; we are manipulated and pressured into the shallowest consumerism and slavish fashion-following and mocked for it. Alienation is a nightmare because all possibilities within that world are bad, incoherent, and purposeless – according to the world of the nightmare there is nowhere to escape from the nightmare – the nightmare is everything and everywhere because it is metaphysical. We have been trapped by our assumptions.  

But change the assumptions and we are free.


David Balfour said...

That is it nailed it!

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks.

The clearer I can express this to myself, the more it helps in achieving it: more intensely and for more of the time.