Monday, February 8, 2010

Aspects of Alienation

The word itself, alienation, has a rich flavor, when you think about it. Its Latin root is alius, “the other,” the word itself means “belonging to another” and is therefore linked to property. The third meaning, estrangement, thus an attitude toward the strange or the foreign, seems to have arisen as an extension of the basic concept hidden in that dread word—the other. So here we have a word that simultaneously constellates property relationships (the alienation, thus the transfer to another, of a piece of property); the alien, the stranger; and the alienist, thus the shrink, the person assigned to deal with the insane. Wonderfully rich word, perfect for the sociologist.

Estrangement, based on “stranger,” comes ultimately, by way of Old French (estrange), from the Latin extraneus. That last word is basic. It means “born outside,” thus beyond our borders. Foreign, also from OF, is based on late Latin foranus meaning “on the outside.” There it is again: other, outside, beyond the border. Functionally these are all concepts suggesting a distance in space. What isn’t right around us, that which we don’t see every day—that is the strange, the foreign, the other, the unknown, the alien—the threatening.

Now it strikes me as interesting that the meaning we now attach to alienation has nothing to do with visiting or invading strangers. The modern meaning suggests a kind of internal estrangement. Here we are, living our lives, getting along, more or less agreeing with all that goes on around us. But we now notice that in a kind of stealthy way now this changes and now that. A kind of strangeness has begun to spread. And nodes of strangeness are connecting, linking. They’re forming, it seems (although it’s hard to see it clearly), a veritable network of the “other.” This particular species of strangeness is familiar, however—because it’s all around us and we see it every day. Its alien nature derives from something other than distance. It is a deformation, you might say, of the vertical dimension, the dimension of values.

When a foreign culture invades our own, it is segregated spatially. Those who come cluster together for protection, and the natives avoid them for similar reasons. Brigitte and I saw this process most strikingly years ago once on a trip to Germany. We hadn’t been back for a decade or more. A huge emigration from Turkey, to support the Wirtschaftswunder, so-called, had resulted in the formation of Turkish-only neighborhoods. On one of our trips we suddenly left Germany as we knew it by crossing an intersection and were smack in the center of a middle-eastern world. We recognized it, too, but from television coverage of that particular part of the world. Spatial separation.

But when the world morphs into an alien shape, when familiar institutions—while retaining all their outward forms—internally change into something recognizably alien—when that is our experience, the feeling is, well, alienation of the vertical sort. It is inescapable especially when the numbers begin to shift and we find ourselves in the ever-shrinking minority. With that process accelerating, one experiences a strange isolation from the society-at-large. And the sharper our own sense of values, the more keenly felt. Does this portend that, sooner or later, a vertical alienation also transforms into a spatial kind—with minorities aggregating into separate communities in physical space? Too bad that even in light of today’s extended life-expectancy, I’m not likely to live long enough to see the outcome of a process I feel taking place all around me.

1 comment:

  1. I could have predicted the topic of this post some time ago, that is to say, that on Monday, February 8th Arsen will have a post about... feeling alienated or estanged... from the "culture" at large. Really.


    Because Super Bowl Sunday is one, big, monstrous, enormous, testosterone ladden--almost impossible to ignore--overdose of excess and pop culture revelry.

    Give it a few days, Arsen, the feeling will diminish, at least a little bit...