Thursday, February 2, 2012

Gross Domestic Alienation

We are a social species and hence we want to make a contribution—not in some abstract and therefore meaningless way. Concretely. The contribution should be tangible. When life is structured so that our contribution does not tangibly extend beyond the immediate family, in perception at least our sense of community shrinks. Community is what we view as ours; what lies beyond it is the other. Thus our sense of genuine participation is greatly influence by the scale of things—and also by the nature of our contribution. It must be something real, complete.

Mass culture and mass communications, therefore, produce alienation by their very nature.

This appeared quite early on by excessive division of labor. Before the robots arrived in manufacturing, people spent whole careers on assembly lines tightening three nuts on a part or attaching one little fixture to a larger frame. Done with one, came the next. You were making a car—but were you really? When we arrived here in America my mother had a job for a while where she sewed one part of a shirt sleeve on a machine—one after the other, one after the other. Then she got a job as the sole administrator (those were the days!) at a doctor’s office. If we could march across the labor force and get a genuine, visceral feel for the content of jobs, we would soon discover that short-order cooks are among the few who have real jobs. But these don’t pay much. The robots have taken over tightening nuts, but in other spheres, the evil merely grows. I know a woman who spent two years in training for a job which consists of classifying medical transactions reaching her as slips of paper and finding the ten, twelve-digit numbers that correspond to these in various monstrously-sized insurance manuals. Her reward, beyond pay, is the entirely abstract consolation that she is working in healthcare.

I’ve barely even touched the tip of the iceberg. What goes for work applies to everything else—non-societies of which we’re members, the non-neighborhoods in which we live, the non-schools where we study or teach, the non-families that barely cling together by spider-webs of telephone calls, the non-networks that we call social.

Gross Domestic Alienation, beyond producing an ocean of subliminal frustration, also produces vast emotional storms called elections and their hysterical coverage in the mass media. The insanity has become so habitual now, we barely notice it. Send money, put up a sign, attend a rally, and cast a vote. Then go home in a warm and cozy cloud of conviction murmuring to your cell-phone saying, I’m making a contribution.

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