Friday, February 18, 2011

Alienation: The Hypothetical and the Reality

Revision to Blog #2:

While One Dimensional Man and The Parable of the Sower are by no means similar works of literature, both authors use their pieces as social critiques of contemporary American society and offer up very similar solutions to its stagnancy. Butler’s Lauren Olamina and Marcuse’s man live in worlds that are rapidly crumbling around them as a result of complacency with current conditions and resistance to social change. Though these worlds differ in their exact modes of destruction, Marcuse and Butler both hold the firm belief that alienation of the individual results in the creation of a potential revolutionist capable of initiating the changes necessary to reform. A brief look at the two novels shows these authors, in short, conclude that alienation is a positive form of separation between man and society but an examination of alienation as it functions in practice shows that it is a negative and destructive form of isolation.

Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man does not by any means take root solely in the argument of alienation (for he speaks namely of the artist), but he uses the disappearance of a once highly separated figure of society to exemplify the very last stages of assimilation to a “greater good” and the first step that must be taken in order to achieve freedom. An artist uses his works of art as a means to demonstrate some fundamental flaw or inadequacy of the society and it was this status as “artist” and his solitude that “sustained the individual against and beyond his society” (71). Through imaginative and creative forces the artist was capable of identifying what as innately missing from society, a truth that no one else could see, and thereby placed himself above the rest; it was through this manner that the artist was capable of criticizing and reshaping the society that, in Marcuse’s eyes, is inherently evil. Essential to Marcuse’s view of alienation, though, is that while a person capable of extracting themselves from society could in theory cause a disturbance, this extraction is no longer possible because what once rendered them capable of making criticisms has been stripped of its “subversive force” (Marcuse 61). The alienated are a dying breed whose means of separation (their art) have been quantified, integrated into the system to the point of propagating its very existence, and thereby no longer serving to “disturb the order of business” (61). In Marcuse’s view of contemporary, technological society one must become alienated to be free but one cannot be alienated because the means by which one may become so are simply a form of sustenance for the system they once worked against.

In Butler’s world alienation evidently does exist as it is quite obvious that the protagonist, Lauren, retains a strikingly different philosophy than the rest of her community. Rather than being content with the false sense of security rewarded by a makeshift wall she sees beyond the boundaries of Robledo and what is considered “rational” in her time, allowing her to create the philosophy that is itself centered around change. The importance of Earthseed is not that it acts as a form of religious guidance, for there is certainly plenty of that in Lauren’s world, nor is it important that Lauren feels estranged, for Keith also removed himself from the small town but did not ultimately succeed in making a positive change out of his separation; what is important in Butler’s world of the alienated is that they are physically and biologically distinct from the rest of the population.

If Lauren is to be compared to the artist in Marcuse’s analogy, her hyper-empathy syndrome is the form of art that allows her to pit herself against her society and become the revolutionist that propels a movement for positive social change. Most significant to Butler’s attitude on alienation are the inherent (rather than created) nature of the differentiation and the fact that the blame for societal decline falls heavily on greed. While the average human is susceptible to the draws of evils such as technology (as accredited by Marcuse) and greed, as a sufferer of hyperempathy syndrome Lauren is biologically obligated to not fall prey to that which has swallowed her society; she herself states this quintessential point of alienation after Keith’s death in saying, “if hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complain, people couldn’t do such things” as kill for greedy and selfish purposes (Butler 105). Although Lauren, and people like her, seem to have negative experiences with their disorder they are ultimately granted the ability to objectively evaluate their surroundings and, with enough ambition, create vehicles of social change. As with Marcuse, Butler believes it is the capacity to initiate reform that will free a society and, similarly, that it is through alienation that one can achieve such a capability.

The fundamental problem with both of these arguments, however, is that they exist purely within a fictional realm (Butler’s literally in a novel and Marcuse’s in a more metaphysical sense). When the concept alienation is removed from the confines of the pages of a book and put into practice within the context of a functioning society the results are entirely different. For Butler and Marcuse alienation is the ideal solution to social complacency purely because it is a hypothetical in the situations in which they present it; the individual, freed from the repressive rules and chains of society in one form or another, is now free to judge what they are not a part of.

But in an historical context alienation has indeed rendered the individual separate but has also made them powerless and ineffective. For instance, the Vietnam War spurred a radical downward trend in trust of the American government and feelings of efficacy amongst the public because the events were largely disapproved of by the people (Lipset 8). A number of polls were of course administered to the public and a particularly interesting one created by Louis Harris addressed public confidence in not only the government but in all “people in charge of running [various institutions] (6). Harris’ report found that an alarmingly small 28% of Americans reported that they felt a “great deal of confidence” in these leader figures and, more significantly, that “confidence fell off in every institution named,” (6). Despite the splendors offered by a technologically advanced society the public did not become complacent as Marcuse theorized, but rather they were “a population that while increasingly well-educated felt increasingly powerless” (18). While Marcuse and Butler may note the existence of social stagnancy but it is neither the result of a satisfaction with the society nor will it be solved by alienation; it is the proffered solution that creates the problem.

When leaders become separate from the people the result is not a falling in line of the public for a “greater good,” (Marcuse 4) but rather an embittered people that become resistant to social change as a product of decreased efficacy. There is a recognition here by the American public of their utter powerlessness with which Marcuse does not credit them the capability in his novel. This is the reality of alienation. It may not have occurred under the terms or conditions that either author intended but this is precisely the point; when considering the effect of a process upon a group of living, breathing people we cannot only consider it in its hypothetical behavior. While isolation of the individual in a literary realm, where conditions and reactions can be controlled, creates a completely objective figure, the truth of alienation in a functioning society is that it creates sub-cultures that inherently become minority populations. The historical lens again reveals that “wherever the solidarity structure is polarized by…race…and the political lines follow those of social cleavage” the resulting alienation “intensif[ies] conflict rather than helping to integrate society,” (Lipset 308).

Marcuse speaks heavily of “reciprocation” or “propagation” of the system by a people who act based solely upon the needs of a “vested interest” rather than personal needs (Marcuse 4). In Octavia Butler’s world the people suffer a similar fate of an utter inability to function as a whole for a better good. In both of these works it is integration that is evil for it creates a brainwashed monster that does not act of its own accord but only as a means to strengthen what it is that controls it. What both authors fail to consider is the possibility that, instead of the people being integrated into the system, the system can be integrated into the people and that it is alienation that is the true beast. The organization of a group into a whole concerned with their vested interests is not evidence of incapacity or complacency but rather of a functional society.

This is not to devalue the works of Butler or Marcuse as a philosopher and a novelist for their failure to discuss all aspects of alienation is not negligence but merely a product of the fact that they can exercise this liberty. In purely literary terms we are granted the ability to pick and choose which facets of a topic we discuss, and there is nothing so innately wrong with this, but the discussion must reach its limits when it comes to applying the hypothetical or the fictional to real-life practice. Butler and Marcuse both make valuable critiques on the social structure of modern American society and both pinpoint the same means of improvement; alienation is the sole process by which an individual can become an objective judge of his society and therefore salvage it from destruction. When removed from metaphysical and philosophical discussions and examined upon the basis of historical events, however, it can be seen that alienation does not conform to the idealistic notions of Marcuse and Butler. Social isolation, in reality, is a destructive force that serves to aggravate the people to a point that they become indifferent rather than suddenly enlightened to make change.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brooks Edition, 1993.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Lipset, Seymour M. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative

Perspective. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2003.


  1. Part One"A brief look at the two novels shows these authors, in short, conclude that alienation is a positive form of separation between man and society but an examination of alienation as it functions in practice shows that it is a negative and destructive form of isolation." Minor point - Marcuse isn't writing a novel. Major point: I assume that the second half of the sentence, following the but, is showing us your actual argument. I endorse the approach, but it's importance to be crystal-clear on what your position is. He both recognizes and embraces the intensification of conflict to which Lipset refers.

    Your description of Marcuse on alienation is a compact and insightful overview of an extremely difficult subject. Excellent.

    Your discussion of Lauren's alienation is also very good, although I feel that it was incomplete on the very interesting point re: whether we should consider Lauren as an artist. Maybe that's not your ultimate direction, but it's a very interesting one, regardless.

    "it is the proffered solution that creates the problem." This is an interesting and intellectually ambitious attempt to critique both Marcuse and Butler. I'm paying attention to what you have to say, but let me raise one initial problem: you are at least in danger of conflating concepts and categories. In other words, the alienation of "mass democracy" (which Marcuse discusses, although not using the word alienation) is not necessarily related to artistic alienation. Now, you may take the position that the two are, in fact, related, and that artistic "alienation" is a only a romanticization of a much more pedestrian problem. Hopefully you actually do that, rather than just casually conflated the two.

  2. Part Two

    "the truth of alienation in a functioning society is that it creates sub-cultures that inherently become minority populations."

    Marcuse would not disagree. Let's look on page 256-7:

    "However, underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones, and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death. Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period."

    Your reading of Marcuse, in other words, is incomplete: he sees both artistic alienation and the alienation of those outside the system as being potent political forces, which expose the system's lies and deceptions.

    “What both authors fail to consider is the possibility that, instead of the people being integrated into the system, the system can be integrated into the people and that it is alienation that is the true beast.” This is an interesting and ambitious claim, but I'm not sure what it means. A point this critical needs further explanation.
    Anyway, now I'm at the end, and I'm prepared to gather my scattered thoughts. At the end of the day, I don't know if anyone would doubt that “social isolation” can have negative effects. What I'm not satisfied with is your assumption that “social isolation” and “alienation” are the same concept. Indeed, Marcuse is interested in the isolation of minorities and outcasts as a different-but-related phenomenon to artistic alienation; Butler is interested in the literally isolated (the Parrish/Payne family, to say nothing of the cannibals!) as well as Lauren't biological isolation.

    To put it in one sentence: your critique of Butler and Marcuse is potentially interesting and sophisticated, but you haven't finished the basic part of it, which is showing us that they fail to differentiate different categories of isolation. In Marcuse, at least, there is materially critically important to your argument which you've failed to address.