The Place of Alienation in the American Political Consciousness

I seem to be looking for meaning everywhere I turn. But meaning I cannot find today.

Looking for meaning ought to point to something, a thing that corresponds to it. It’s a temptation to try to find some object that we might call “the meaning.” But there is no such object. This temptation — to find the meaning — needs to be cured.

Baffled, I look and wonder about our state of affairs — why we are the way we are, today’s American — and find not a single hint of an answer anywhere. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is obvious. Perhaps, as mathematicians might suggest, the deterministic nature of our system — capitalism flag waving as democracy — does not allow for predictability.

The world is perpetually in flux, yet Americans operate as if it’s static. We speak boldly about Morality and Utility, but these extract demands from our propensity for pleasure — oral, visual, sexual (not so much sensual, which would then move us towards aesthetics and a re-engagement with philosophies concerning Beauty, which would be too much to think about, too complex).

We are very much alone and plugged in — iPads, iPhones, computers, social networks. We are solitary — the self in perpetual solitude. Our experiences, like no other time in history, are profoundly solitary. In solitude we have intense experiences and can, for a short time, transcend the very real flux, the natural course of Being, existence.

Americans are then always in contradictions — solitary experiences that momentarily transcend the flux that is always present. Ironic — we are in a constant state of Irony. The prodigal child of irony is Alienation, a ongoing theme, for instance, in our American Literature that begins with Emerson to Hawthorne and Melville to Henry James and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens to Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Alienation gives us a form of rooted rootlessness, security in insecurity, an sense of alienation that has been historically a confirmation of community.

Alienation, rather then any ideology, is the construct of politics in America today. Alienation presupposes the always ongoing struggle to find the meaning that alludes us. There is no meaning — it’s the temptation we follow.

The rhetoric of politicians, keenly orchestrated to appeal to media, exploits the temptation to find the object that will give us the meaning. No one is telling the truth, though. The only truth is that our masquerading democracy seeks exploitation to survive, using Divine Providence — the false notion that we are the Chosen — to embellish our tendency for denial of what we see — or don’t see.

We signed up and followed Obama’s Change Rhetoric, only to find out that change meant more of the same: a rounding up of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policies and greater intimacy with Wall Street, passed down to us by Reagan. We’ve been lead, with our acceptance, down the wrong path. And the alternative, the crazy, Ahab-like Newt of destruction and the indifferent and the callous and blindly ambitious Romney, who made his fortune on destruction, promise a profound exploitation of resources.

In The Ship chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” What we chase is profoundly irrelevant, says Melville.Moby-Dick

We long for men that promise the meaning; we chase after their ambition, as poor Ishmael did when he stepped onto the Pequod and said, “this ship is for us.” But the Pequod is not a democracy; in its appeal to be considered the meaning, what we find, as a microcosm of American culture, in 1851 and 2011, is a totalitarian regime disguised as a democracy fully grounded in self-reliance. And nothing could be further form the truth, which is where we find ourselves today in America — far from any sense of truth.

In the end, now, as did Ishmael, we are orphaned, floating in a sea, only the sharks do not have “padlocks on their mouths.”

4 thoughts on “The Place of Alienation in the American Political Consciousness

  1. Thanks for the Berman. As for “adrift,” I think that this is all of us now. OWS, et al, are pushing but the responses are overwhelming though subtle. The strongest of which is the re-articulation of voting as big money, quietly adjusts who are in state houses; this too is a movement creating huge obstacles for the poor, disenfranchised and people of color so that they don’t come out for the vote, which in 2012, will be critical. Decline? (as Berman would argue perhaps), we’re beyond that now — we’re adrift looking for a shore, I think

  2. Interesting post on alienation. Religion has at times in the past provided both an individual place of thought and a communal experience. I suppose TV is the nearest we come to in that way these days.
    I’m not sure – from my foreign standpoint (though a repeated and sympathetic visitor) that I’d go as far as your analysis that you’re living under a totalitarian regime. The varied nature of the country and the behaviour of the people suggest to me that you are not.

    • Thank you! And Happy New Year!

      I see what you’re saying; however, totalitarianism, if we can call it that, comes in many forms, the oldest being black boots and brow shirts. When in the late 70’s early 80’s Edward Said was talking about Orientalism and colonialism, he was suggesting that there are intellectual implications — that is, the taking over, if you will, of consciousness. This is what I’m talking about: totalitarianism, today, comes through markets; it excites the imagination with possibilities, but it negates independence of thought. Sure, there are plenty of examples of creative thinking, even different thinking, but these are few and far between, a part of the agenda, as Chomsky told us in the 80’s with Manufacturing Consent. Then, there were 20 media companies controlling all delivery of information. By the time McChesney writes his book on democracy and the media, there were five. Looking at banking, too: we’re down to 4 — only 4 — major banks in the world. This is a massive, unstoppable concentration of power. And this power is being very easily maintained by the horrific educational system that nurtures individuals so that they / we fit into cogs in the system — not change agents, mind you, but instruments to fix only what’s broken at certain points and thus keeping the thing going. In 1985, Michele Foucault tells us that institutions are arbitrary. If we can go along with that, then we can understand how and why a massive concentration of power equals a totalitarianism of the mind — thus we’re subjects, subjugated.

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