Unrelated_Alienated. The Way We (Might) Live Together

Michael Hirsch

I was glad when I received the commission to write this text from Vanessa Joan Müller on April 7. Both because of the nature of the question I had been asked and because the invitation met me as I faced a void, a lack of projects.

In Lack of a Task

As Boris Groys once wrote: ‘project’ is the name for a period of socially sanctioned solitude for writers, artists, and other cultural workers (1). The creation of a singular spacetime for a kind of work, and life, that otherwise might remain private, threatened by the spectre of vanity and meaninglessness. This spectre is now haunting us.

Soon I realised that writing about alienation and unrelatedness in times like ours, in times of massive social distancing, is not so easy a task. I felt my lack of energy, my lack of calling, as a theorist and writer in general. In lack of a task.

In a piece by Olga Hohmann, called ‘Writing about distance in times of social distancing’, on the website of my publisher, Textem Verlag in Hamburg, we read:

Unfortunately, after some days of being in a not-self-chosen quarantine, I had to realize that my expectation did not work out. The current situation had put a new kind of numbness on me, something between blunt and paralysed, a lethargic way of not finding my own thoughts any relevant — or even have some [sic]. Even though this should have been a very good time for people who like to observe and write from a contemplative distance, I didn't find this inner distance in my actual social distance — quarantine felt different when everyone else is in it, too. The machine of the outside has to be running in order to escape her — now, being inside, hidden, isn't really an escape, it's just reality. (...) Now, that I suffer from a lack of inspiration, from fear and melancholia, I am almost happy not to be as untouchable as I thought. I am experiencing ‘immediacy’ within forced (social) distance (...).(2)

I can mostly identify with these lines, with one exception: I don’t feel happy not to be untouchable. Probably because I never felt untouchable, having always had a strong sense of social precariousness and vulnerability, of exposure to the symbolic violence of society and its verdicts over subjects, like in the title of a book by Didier Eribon: La société comme verdict. The current state of things rather intensifies this feeling of vulnerability — both in material terms (a tendential impoverishment of great swathes of artists, writers, and academics), and in symbolic terms (a tendential loss of resonance and meaning). Initially I was glad when I realised I was more or less like everybody else. The exceptional situation serving as a great leveller in life. But with time’s passing, after some weeks, the feeling of weakness and melancholia, of an overall lack of intellectual inspiration, became stronger.

As if the world no longer existed; as if everything suddenly lost, or shifted, its meaning. Like a ‘State-administrative surrealism’, instead of an aesthetic one. As if the halt in the normal course of things had produced a withdrawal rather than an augmentation of all possible experiences and meanings.

Unrelated – Fading of the World

Social distancing has created a particular form of unrelatedness, and alienation. What is it exactly that we are lacking now? We are in lack of community, in lack of others. We are in lack of reality, both physical and symbolic, feeling separated, alienated, privatised, reduced to the private sphere, locked in our homes. Alienated from humanity, from others — and from ourselves.

Alienated: living one’s life as if it were that of another. If alienation is the relation of unrelatedness, then the current state of exception is per-haps one step further: a state of unrelatedness altogether.

The world is fading away, disappearing, creating an ontological split between the state ‘before’, and the state ‘after’ the beginning of the cur-rent crisis. Whereas before the actual state of quarantine and emergency, our relations with the world, with the ‘outside’, have often been perceived and described, lived as ‘alienated’, as a false, torn, twisted way of relating to others, to oneself, and to the world — there seems to be no more relation at all now. Unrelated we are, it seems. Alienation is no more a latent quality of a false social organisation of living, working, of relating to others and to oneself. It has become the manifest overall condition.

Many seem to now be experiencing a nostalgia, a desire for the return of the normal state of before: to normal, latent alienation. To an only latently false life. Because the architecture of everyday life, and the symbolic construction of meaning had been, until recently, almost entirely centred around forms of being, and of feeling needed, of being, feeling or seeming socially necessary, socially integrated by the great machines of socialisation that are the cultural institutions, the professions of the cultural field, in our particular case of cultural workers. It is not only the reality, but also the appearance of this feeling-needed, that has faded away.

The classical self-critical appendix of modern bourgeois culture (be it conservative, decadent, romantic, individualistic, and mystical — or progressive, rationalist, egalitarian, and emancipatory) is the more or less latent feeling that this culture, with its respective professional and institutional fields, is falsely organised, captured in a false mode of constructing social relations, social necessities, and social meanings. Now everything is different, because we as producers and traders of meaning are caught in an overall crisis of both the production and the distribution of meaning.

Second Enlightenment

Unrelatedness or alienation: a way of life that is ‘bewitched’, to borrow Adorno’s term. And a site of struggle. A struggling for, a continuous effort to lead a right life under the conditions of a false one. This struggle remains to be led in an enlightened way. Second Enlightenment is a politics of life driven by the desire to lead a right, unalienated life under the conditions of a wrong, alienated life. In addition to Kant’s definition of the concept in What is Enlightenment?, i.e. the courage to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance, Second Enlightenment would be the courage to also use one’s desires and wishes without another’s guidance. To enact a proper economy of desire.

ENLIGHTENMENT IS MAN'S EMERGENCE FROM HIS SELF-INCURRED IMMATURITY. IMMATURITY IS THE INABILITY TO USE ONE'S OWN UNDERSTANDING WITHOUT THE GUIDANCE OF ANOTHER. THIS IMMATURITY IS SELF-INCURRED IF ITS CAUSE IS NOT LACK OF UNDERSTANDING, BUT LACK OF RESOLUTION AND COURAGE TO USE IT WITHOUT THE GUIDANCE OF ANOTHER. (3)

Immaturity, or ‘nonage’ – in German Unmündigkeit – is the respective negative concept to Enlightenment. Many remain in a state of immaturity less with respect to the use of their capacities of understanding, but more with respect to their capacities of desiring, to their energies of wishing another life, a true life (in a false one). The ‘lack of resolution and courage’ evoked by Kant is an attitude to neutralise or postpone one’s own desire for another life: waiting for the big Other, the State, Society, the Others, to change their overall patterns of normal life and social expectations — instead of beginning, already here and now, not alone as a singular being, but together with other singular beings, and related to them, with another way of life. Nonage was at the centre of the old normal: being professional.

Nonage means the lack of a proper ethics and aesthetics of existence: the lack of courage to develop and use one’s own capacities to wish, desire, and fantasise, and to speak in one’s own name, in the name of a proper life. Nonage is the lack of courage to speak and act, for instance as a writer and theorist, as an empirical subject, i.e. in the mode of the first person singular. In other words, it is the lack of courage for self-empowerment: trying to become, here and there, the author of one’s life, of one’s stories and narratives, woven together with the lives of others, who are not simply Others – i.e. representatives of their class, and their respective social positions and categories – but singular beings involved with both theoretical, and practical experiments of an ethics and aesthetics of existence. The courage of self-empowerment is nothing else but the courage to politicise one’s own life, to deprivatise it.

What is happening in these weeks and months is privatisation in the extreme. Can we learn from this extreme case?

Until recently we, as the producers, distributors, and consumers of the dominating advanced discourse, had tended to reserve the right to empowerment for selected social categories: artists or younger people on the one hand, exemplars of specific, disadvantaged, minority social groups (women, homosexuals, queer and people of colour, the working class, migrants, etc.) on the other. The epoch of Second Enlightenment would be the beginning of the universalisation of the capacities for empowerment: its accessibility for ‘normal’, mainstream people. This would mean that all the speakers and actors in the cultural field, including those who are male, heterosexual, middle class subjects, would be potentially included in a movement of hegemonic struggle. Instead of being condemned to speak and write and act, endlessly, only on behalf of others, who are ‘different’, or less privileged. Instead of continuing to act, think and write as if alienation would be a problem only for others.

Becoming Anti-professional

When we look back on what has been, until recently, seemingly normal, on the familiar qualities of alienation – the joint symptoms of overwork, over-identification with work or with one’s workforce, over-integration into the socius – it seems that the current pause in the normal course of things is a moment for the possible reinvention of our way of life.

Life in the late modern and late capitalist system is not entirely alienated in itself. Rather, the dominant way of life of the wage-work society is structurally alienated or alienating, in its quid pro quo of means and ends. In its confusion of a good, meaningful life with a life concerned with being fully occupied and integrated into society – i.e. both tempo-rally and symbolically – as a workforce.

Our lives are not per se alienated. Rather, it is the case that those who are seeking, in theory and practice, to realise a heterodoxy – another way of life than the dominant one centred around wage work and the masculine economies of meaning – are not (yet) gaining terrain in the hegemonic struggle to define the way we live together. Until now, they have not received from the collective any substantial social and material protection or recognition of their way of life; nor any substantial material and symbolic recognition by their so-called peers, their colleagues and friends in their respective professional fields. Until recently, the beauty and meaning of their lives as avant-gardes of another lifestyle – with their withdrawal, both positive and negative, from the dominant social norms of life (three of the classical terms for this latent avant-garde have been ‘artistic’, ‘bohemian’, and ‘feminine’) – has therefore suffered from a lack of recognition and visibility.

It is up to our concrete, everyday practices and discourses as writers, artists, journalists, and cultural workers whether this will remain so or whether, to the contrary, we will be able to unfold the real utopia contained in the ways millions and millions of different people have already been living for a very long time.

The current crisis is perhaps an occasion to ask this question with another vigour: Because it can be understood as something like the negative, like a minus version of an emancipatory state: A pause, a halt in the usual course of things, a potential for reinventing the everyday life, for re-writing the social contract that more explicitly or implicitly circumscribes the habits, rhythms, and rituals that link together our respective social practices.

I call the style of an emancipated lifestyle ‘becoming anti-professional’. It is a way of life that calls into question the hegemonic power of the ‘institution’ over our lives and habits. Not only ideologically, in the content of theoretical, artistic, cultural work, but also practically and performatively, in writing, speaking, living and acting together. Anti-professionalism consists of a series of acts of practical resistance to the conforming and corrupting norms of the cultural field — acts that are both a critical negation of these power structures and a practical affirmation, an existential line of flight.

Every text, every discourse, every meeting, and every project co-determines the practical shape and the nature of these acts and ways of life: to the degree by which they can be seen and lived as more or less alienated. As more or less an aspect of a good life here and now, and not just a routinely erected sign of a possible better, emancipated future.

The hegemonic struggle also consists in the power relation between the small professional elites, the ‘bourgeoisie’ in art, literature, museums, theatres, science, journalism, etc. (usually over-integrated and over-professionalised), and the masses of rather under-integrated and under-professionalised cultural or knowledge workers (the precariat or ‘proletariat’). The struggle always consists in the question: whose life-style and world view is the dominant one, the normal one? Whose way of life and biography can be understood as the relevant, dominant model of existence and biographical construction, and meaning? In my eyes the struggle is essentially the struggle between different, competing models to define what it is, and what it could be, to be a writer, an artist, a journalist, a curator, etc.

A Different Normal

Understanding our work and life as a model is contrary to understanding ourselves professionally, as essentially a workforce within the respective cultural fields. Anti-professionalism is a non-alienated line of flight from the constraint of identifying oneself with the professional field and its norms of behaviour, lifestyle, sociality. Speaking, acting, writing, cooperating in our own name, and that is, in the name of a true, non-alienated life.

The current crisis confronts us with an almost total lack of sociality, communal relations, with others. It is important to clarify together what it is that we miss now. Only then might we answer the question: what can and should resume after the crisis and how? Maybe it is not implausible to resume differently, more carefully, more attentively to the qualities of our everyday practices understood as models, as practical models of empowerment, of singular subjects as parts of a strange multitude that today, in these weeks and months, has lost most of its communal ties. The rebuilding of these ties will proceed in part via elements of the ‘normal’ of past times. But it will also proceed by means of a practical, affirmative negation of many alienating elements of the old normal. This is the emergence from our self-imposed nonage. The struggle is about regaining a life. Regaining a new, a different, normal.

Michael Hirsch is a philosopher, political scientist and art theorist. He teaches Political Theory and History of Ideas at Siegen University, and lives as a freelance author in Munich. His most recent book is Richtig falsch. Es gibt ein richtiges Leben im falschen. (Textem: Hamburg, 2019).


(1) Boris Groys, “The Loneliness of the Project”, in: Going Public (Berlin: Sternberg, 2010), pp. 70-82. (2) Didier Eribon, La société comme verdict. Classes, identités, trajectoires (Paris: FAYARD, 2013). (3) Immanuel Kant: “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment”, in: Political Writings, edited by H.S. Reiss, translated by H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 (1970)), p. 54.