Vanessa Joan Müller
Social distancing is the catchword of the days, weeks and months dominated by the corona virus — keeping apart, avoiding physical contact. Separation is the new social. However, many people fear that they might become alienated due to spending so much time in seclusion. But what does “alienation” actually mean? High in fashion in the 1960s und 1970s and closely related to the Frankfurt school of Adorno, Horckheimer and the like, alienation, like many philosophical categories, is a rather vague concept illustrating phenomena as diverse as indifference, feelings of separation, the decline of social connectedness, the resentment and apathy prompted by social pressures to conform and perform, a lack of trust in institutions, the retreat into the private sphere, the non-identification with one’s job, and more. Basically, alienation describes a paradoxical state of simultaneous inclusion and isolation. Subjects confront relationships, institutions, things and human work as alien entities that can no longer be traced back to themselves. An alienated human is “a stranger in the world that he himself has made” (Alasdair Maclntyre). Conceived not as a coincidental defect but as the structural problem of modern existence, the relation between the self and the world is no longer based on resonance and mutuality, but on a “relation of unrelatedness”, as Rahel Jaeggi puts it.
Together with Nicolaus Schafhausen, I curated Antartica. An Exhibition on Alienation for Kunsthalle Wien in autumn 2018. One of the key questions while working on the exhibition was whether alienation would still be an apt term to describe (and analyse) contemporary society. The exhibition title — adapted from a sketch for a film by Michelangelo Antonioni — focused on the cold as an operating principle of advanced modernity: “The glaciers of Antarctica are edging closer by three millimetres per year. Calculate when they will reach us. Make a film anticipating what will happen then.” Antonioni, master of the existentialist drama on singularised subjectivity and the emotional freezing of the bourgeoisie, embraced alienation as an appropriate diagnosis of post-war modernity. The icebergs of his metaphoric Antarctica would indeed have been an accurate visual metaphor for being together apart.
Alienation commonly means that people have estranged one another in the sense of coldness. Coldness manifests itself as a haptic quality perceived on the surface of the isolated body, on the skin, as an effect of separation. Since romanticism, cultural criticism has made use of this connotation. The process of alienation was read as a loss of emotional directness and existential certainty. As a philosophical term, alienation has a more precise outline – Hegel used it to describe the expression of the idea in nature or that of man in his work; Feuerbach coined the concept of self-alienation and thus accentuated the aspect of anthropological impoverishment; Marx finally applied Feuerbach's interpretation under the idea of exploitation to the social. It was Ernst Bloch who pointed out that the term alienation was used from an early age on for making business: the Latin abalienare means selling or disposing of something. In Marx’s view, alienation results from one of capitalism’s basic conditions, namely the worker's separation from the means of social production; from his creative faculties as a worker. Incapable of relating to the products of his labour in a meaningful way, and being nothing but an “appendix of the machine”, for the worker the bourgeois society becomes an alien, “hostile world”.
Both this diagnosis and the notion of alienation as “estrangement in the sense of coldness” seem slightly outdated. Ours is an age of heating up, not just in terms of climate: affect and creativity have replaced the isolation of a subject that feels the split in herself and resists a smooth reconciliation with circumstance. Authenticity is the slogan of the day, “the self” its protagonist. But does that imply that alienation is but an affliction of the past? Or has it, on the contrary, become so pervasive that it simply does no longer appear as such?
One could argue that under the “new spirit of capitalism”, as Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski characterised the past decades, the working world has provided the base for a new form of alienation. Even though the protests of ’68 generation fought the “social coldness” of society, in the long run it might have been this revolt focused on creativity, authenticity, personal responsibility and flexibility as antithesis to the “mimesis of the hardened and alienated” (Adorno) that finally led to the neoliberal over-identification with one’s job, to self-optimisation and other expressions of a perfect conjunction of individual desire and universal social requirement. One effect of this all-encompassing authentic and creative performance could indeed be the exhaustion, lethargy, depression summarised by alienation: the “exhausted self” is no longer freezing, but simply burnt out.
UNRELATED is a long-term project that will look at alienation as a contemporary condition and condition of the contemporary. It will work as a kind of background sound; a voice somewhere in the room accompanying the other projects that will happen at Netwerk Aalst as part of The Astronaut Metaphor. It will materialise itself in a series of texts, interviews and conversation. It might include a film program; an exhibition on the fringes of the institution; a podcast; a list of recommended readings — all together forming a supplement to the issues thematised by The Astronaut Metaphor at large.