Revision to Blog #2: http://pitt-crit-reading.blogspot.com/2011/01/alienation-and-revolution.html
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.
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.