The concept of alienation at its core implies that the true nature of something, its essence, or its actual existence is divorced from its real nature. This definition depends on essentialism; the idea that there is a true nature to things, hence it is a metaphysical concept. What is this true nature?
It varies widely across thinkers. For Rousseau, essence is a oneness with a metaphysical absolute found in nature, but this unity has been corrupted by civilization. For Feurbach and Marx, the human is a generic being, meaning that human essence is consciousness qua the ability to universalize. Universalizing refers to “an unlimitedness free from the restrictions of immediate isolated particularity”, a universality that is only possible because of the emptiness, the lack of determinability of the human.
Essence applies to the human as something that is not its own, as a universalized ideal. Marx introduces the idea that commodification between things, (human relations as merely empty relations amongst things) leads to alienation. The Marxist tradition posits that participation in the universal can be a form of oppression and alienation itself. But commodification is paradoxical in that it includes on one spectrum a form of false universalism, for example the values of liberalism that are superimposed – but their adoption is a form of particularity. Gaining freedom, or the process of de-alienation from specific particularity, or false universalism creates a generic being, an alienated being. This alienated subject entails the atomization of the individual from her fellow humans and the social whole.
While Derrida has never been a thinker that I have absorbed in full depth, I have read his work on Marx (The Work of Mourning, and his work on Friendship and late cosmopolitanism) – but I have neglected Grammatology, and his more systematic works. This is why reading Alienation After Derrida proved so rewarding, because it introduces the system of Derridean deconstruction in accessible terms. Simon Skempton traces the genealogy of a term that Derrida himself rarely if ever employs: alienation. The book has substantial sections on Derrida’s reading of Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger. It ends with an excellent reading of Derrida and Levinas, and some speculative insights into the future of otherness philosophy after Derrida. In this post, I want to outline the book, because it is difficult, but worthwhile to work through.
Hegel and Alienation
For Hegel, both alienation and its overcoming are essential for consciousness. Alienation functions, “like a play of masks and changeable surfaces – the constant dissolution and reconfiguration of identities with no anchor in a final self-presence”, which is described by Hegel as the nihilistic game of culture, a form of consciousness he terms as self-alienated spirit. Self-alienated spirit involves a phenomenon where all values are reversible, where everything is insubstantial and superficial. It is unclear whether self-alienated spirit applies to a particular period of time (feudalism) or if it actually extends to the pre-bourgeois period.
Hegel’s system of philosophy is organic in the same sense of Rousseau’s natural organicism, (i.e. a loss of purity, and a stable purity that exists “out there”) in so far as it involves a loss of something vital and a reconciliation of subject and object and return to something more. There is no origin from which we are alienated, and this is a distinctly Hegelian idea, for which Derrida put together his notion of “always already” – the idea that we are always already alienated. This is derived from the Hegelian notion that the origin is derived from the end result of the process for which it is a part of (63). The philosophical comprehension of truth in Hegel is only a retroactively applied comprehension of the comprehension itself.
Because all beginnings rest on a decision – a loss of loss, a loss of what we never had in the first place, the authentic substance is spirit (geist), which is at the same time the subject. Spirit is the unity of the different self-consciousness’s. It is the formation of a freedom based on the freedom of the individual. The overcoming of alienation is part and parcel of identity formation in a dialectical sense. In Hegelese (Hegelian jargon/terminology), de-alienation occurs when substance transforms itself into subject (Pg. 68). This transformation of substance into spirit is the raising of the object, external and alien in its objectivity, into the notion, paradoxically internalized and actualized in its spiritual comprehensibility, wherein there is no longer any distinction between subject and object.
The de-alienated subject is the subject aware of its own pre-givenness, or spirit that knows itself as spirit. It is a social conception of the mind. In order for the self to be it must be an other. The Hegelian self is composed of a ‘relational self actuality’ that wrestles with an I-Other relation until it breaks free of the confines of the other into a new cognitive awareness of its own other.
Infinite Systems and Totalities – Good and Bad Infinity
The Hegelian system depends on what Simon Skempton refers to as, “the vomit of the system” – a necessary exclusion. More appropriately, this is referred to as the transcendental condition of possibility of the system. For Derrida, the excluded remainder is the transcendental limit and condition of possibility of Hegelian knowledge. The limit is unknowingly repressed.
The transcendental remainder colors all human relations, particularly the I-other relation, as an “infinite wound” – the only unalienated relationship is that between brother and the sister. Zizek’s most common example that the exclusive capacity is inherent to the formation of the state is the example of the monarch himself. Because the monarch is excluded from rational mediation, and this constitutes totality itself. The non-rational excluded remainder is constitutive of all rational totalities. Zizek claims that the absolute is only realized as the failed project of the dialectic, as the inevitable negative realization.
Good infinity is part of the whole, which means that the true is nothing particular or finite. The absolute is represented only via negativity. His critique could be considered a critique of false absolutism. The absolute is the force of the negative that overcomes all finitude. Derrida is skeptical of thinkers who claim that there is an absolute outside of discourse. The claim that Hegel’s system can be read as an exclusionary system means that it is finite.
In Hegel, there ate two types of infinity, good and bad. Bad infinity refers to the infinity that finds subsumption in an endless progress that is not mediated through an other, and trapped in its own finitude. Hegel calls the true infinite (good infinite) the self-overcoming of all finitude and one-sidedness. It is truly infinite because it is not opposed to anything. Each moment shows that it contains its opposite in itself, and is thus united in itself. The genuine infinite consists in remaining at home with itself in its other, or in coming to itself in its other.
Derrida argues that the good infinite involves the destruction of all singular alterity. Actual infinity is absolute presence, the annihilation of all race of singular alterity. Good infinity is presence that knows itself and has no outside – an integration of all external objectivity into the subject. Derrida breaks the two down into spurious identity and structural infinity. Deconstructive infinity is structural infinity, the structural necessity of the abyss.
Derrida’s notion of differance refers to the infinite deferral of the presence of meaning through the perpetual process of differentiating determination; a play of presence and absence that never comes to rest in the pure presence of an origin or an end.
Differance is thus the endless play of mirrors that resists totalization. This differs from the Kantian transcendental philosophy that argues finitude is constitutive of knowledge, and that the limits of knowledge are its conditions of possibility. The quasi-transcedentality of difference differs from this in that meaning is constituted by that which makes it ultimately impossible, the infinity whose claim of differentiation produces the effect of meaning that the trace is that which eludes mastery, only presence can attain mastery. This is the same as Hegel’s statement, “one masters only finite life.”
Rorty calls deconstruction ‘private irony’ – what he means by that the moment of philosophy (in the Hegelian sense) is when one has the capacity to understand multiple modes of consciousness.
Heidegger’s Way Out of Alienation: Being-Towards-Death
Skempton argues that Heidegger’s thought posits alienation as a fundamental condition of the human being, and that alienation is rooted at an ontological level. Homelessness might be the concept that closely resembles a type of alienation for Heidegger. But homelessness means a forgetting of being, an inability to grasp ones own being. The overcoming of homelessness begins in being, thus alienation is surmountable. Falling is a state where dasein lives away from itself, however, the alienation is a possibility of dasein in its inauthentic (not concerned with its own being) dimension. This falling leads to dasein’s getting entangled within itself.
In Heidegger’s late book Mindfulness, he writes that the only way to overcome the dis-humanization is to ground the truth of being. Thus the truth is that alienation can only be overcome ontologically. For Derrida, Heidegger’s motives for his own deconstruction is itself metaphysical, whereas his work on differance is such more primordial. Differance must be sought without hope for a lost presence. Such an affirmation involves a Nietzschean mode of actively forgetting of being.
The primary phenomenon of seeking a way out of alienation for Heidegger involves primordial and authentic temporality is the future. It is a return from presence to being toward death. It is characterized by anticipatory resoluteness, not fixation with the present.
For Heidegger, the subject is an object of epistemological contemplation, while the subject of German idealism, (Hegel, Marx, and Feurbach) – the subject is not a ‘present at-hand’ as Heidegger claims, rather it is a praxis.
Being towards death becomes the way to seeks to avoid what Heidegger referred to as vulgar time, or experiencing time as a series of now’s. Being towards death might more accurately be re-stated as, “being-towards-being-eventually-rendered-present-at-hand.” Occasionally, Heidegger uses the word spirit to refer to this potentiality.
Being in the world has a sort of spatiality that is spiritual, because it does not inhere in things. The fall of spirit into time (in Hegel) is interpreted by Heidegger as such that spirit does not fall into time, but factual existence falls as falling from primordial, authentic temporality and spirit is itself the Dasein of primordial temporality. The word spirit is itself Heideggerian when it refers to unalienated, unexternalized, non-present-at-hand Dasein.
Being as measured, or potentially measured is, for Heidegger, bound up with the Cartesian subject, the contemplative subject of representations. The quantitative reigns, while the qualitative suffers, because being becomes instrumentalized. Enframing is the term that Heidegger employs to describe the mechanical ordering of beings into a ‘standing reserve’ – a de-worldification and objectification of rendering the world-at-hand.
Technology, to Derrida is a form of writing, as in it eludes both presence and origin. It functions regardless of any conscious intention. Being lies beyond every possible character that it could posses, it is a pure finitude, a transcendence.
Dasein, in transcending itself, owns itself. Being towards death is the most radical form of authenticity, because it is only the individual that can die, not the they. This is radical individuality because it is non-relational. This position contradicts the Hegelian German idealist tradition that argues that consciousness that transcends depends on a substanceless universality and social relations.
Can the social be stripped from the realm of the they? Can it, in other words, transcend the realm of entities and reproduced beings and enter into a realm of de-alienation?
The Other’s Other: The Alienation of Alterity
Differance does not simply belong to history or to structure. Differance is itself historicity. It is the history of the possibility of totality, or rather the impossibility of it. Only the subject as an act of speech is exposed to the other and is thus able to breach totality (167).
Derrida argues that behind any act is a decision, a radical and singular decision. The decision cannot be programmed by any theoretical system. Derridean praxis would then do without the subject as long as the subject is defined as a decision maker. The subject consists of differential force. But the decision comes at a passive moment to the other. A genuine decision that goes beyond the economy of the same is one that comes from the call of the other. It is the basis of any act, and it gives an inherent praxis to the subject.
Alienation is a suppression of otherness, insofar as subjectivity is an opening to the other (170). This form of alienation refers to alterity itself, meaning that this form of alienation refers to the alienation of alterity itself, where the always other is alienated into the same (170).
What Derrida rejects in Levinas, from Violence and Metaphysics, is that absolutely other. It is an other that does not limit the same, for in limiting the same the other would not be rigorously other. “The other for me is an ego which I know to be in relation to me as to an other” (175). Alterity can only be thought as negativity. To Derrida, the other is the self’s other, and the self is the other’s other. Put in other words, the other is the condition of the possibility and impossibility of the self; the self’s own disjuncture (175).
While the encounter with the other is always an encounter of the other with its other, in both directions, a paradoxical symmetry of mutual asymmetry, the other is not reducible to this relation or to realtionality as such (175 – 6).
For Levinas, the other is just as noumenal qua non-phenomenal as the ‘I’, which is the Kantian moral subject. This means that the relation between the ‘I’ and the other is a practical one, because the other is alienated from its phenomenal form, and this alienation is transcended by the face-to-face speech-act. Thus alterity is only possible starting from the subject devoid of phenomenality, thus alterity is only possible in a relation that transcends totality.
To Levinas, the other remains transcendent to the same, and transcendent to its relationship with the same, it remains not as ‘other’, but as a residue of bare singularity, a residue of singularity that is always other when exposed to any relation (176).
It is alterity that is alienated in the closed totality of the same. The practice is identical the difference – the praxis of institutive acts that render impossible any reproduction of the same (178).
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