Self-Alienation and “Post-Truth Society”
Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. — Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“
If alienation and self-alienation are the danger of dangers in the present period — for “New Normal” as also being “post-truth society” is this same self-alienation become maximal — then I think it behooves us to try to understand and interpret this condition of self-alienation which is also implicated in “the culture of narcissism”, and which appears to be approaching its zenith (or nadir) with the post-modern “loss of self”, or deconstruction of the modern self and with what we might call “the revolution of nihilism”.
And the story of man’s self-alienation begins with the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In many ways, Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin, which tracks the history and evolution of consciousness through its various “mutations”, may be taken as an extended treatise on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son of the parable is the representative of mankind or, more specifically, the human ego-consciousness. Gebser is as concerned about mankind’s self-alienation at our “end of history” as much as Walter Benjamin, and for much the same reason — nihilism.
Let’s revisit the parable before we interpret it in terms of Gebser’s cultural philosophy or Benjamin’s concerns about self-alienation, even though I believe most of you know it. It is also retold and recapitulated in the figure of a young Zarathustra in the very opening pages of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
A young man decides to leave his homeland, and the company of his father and brother, for a journey. The father bestows upon the son his blessings and his inheritance. And so the son journeys for years into “a faraway country” during the course of which he squanders his inheritance, his talents, and his blessings, and suffers many hardships, until he finally ends up as a destitute and impoverished swineherd, living as a swine amongst the swine. He has hit rock bottom. The Kali Yuga. And in the extremity of his condition, and in the despondency and despair of his spirit, he then comes to remembrance of himself and his homeland. He rises from the mire and begins the nostos — the homeward journey or return. And when he finally returns, he is greeted with joy by his father. That which was lost has been found.
The parable has many of the same themes as found in Homer’s Odyssey and the journeys of Ulysses, who is also the representative of man, and it reappears also in the opening verse of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, for the “falcon” in its ever-widening gyre is the same Prodigal Son in the process of centrifugal distantiation from the vital core or centre represented by the Falconer. The “widening gyre” and the son’s journey into “a faraway land” are the same process of estrangement. And it is in this sense that the opening lines of “The Second Coming” are also a parable of self-alienation, or estrangement from the vital centre, with all the consequences of that, and which bear on the meaning of Benjamin’s remarks about self-alienation.
It is also in this sense that we are to understand Gebser’s remarks about “progression”, as is presently understood, as simultaneously “distantiation“. This distantiation, which is also the flight of the falcon in Yeats’ poem, is also estrangement and self-alienation from the core or vital centre. The vital centre is synonymous with origin or the source, which is ever-present, and is also called “truth” or “Ultimate Truth”, and which is also symbolised by the Falconer in Yeats’ poem. You may take it as a given that wherever Gebser speaks of “vital centre” or, equivalently, “ever-present origin”, these are synonymous with “truth”. So, in those terms, “post-truth society” also represents a condition and state of maximal self-alienation.
Now, the Prodigal Son appears again in Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, which is a book I recommend everyone read for precisely that reason. The “usurper” in the psychic household — the “Emissary” — is the Prodigal Son, again, as self-alienated or dissociated being — the ego consciousness — which as forgotten that it derives its life and the roots of its existence from the “Master”, which is the vital core, and corresponds with the homeland of the Prodigal Son. Here, the “progression” of the Emissary, which is the process of individuation carried to an extremity into narcissism, is taken as a usurpation corresponding to its degree of distantiation from the vital centre or core nature (once called “soul”). At the extremity of this self-alienation from the vital centre is where we meet the “zombie” — the living dead or an automaton, a soulless being. The zombie theme today — which is so prevalent in contemporary culture and which reflects the post-modern “loss of self” — is the maximal state of self-alienation or estrangement, corresponding to the extremity of the Prodigal Son’s living as a swine amongst swine. This “distantiation” isn’t a spatial one, but a spiritual or psychic one.
In those terms self-alienation or estrangement corresponds to the “culture of narcissism”. But this is not entirely novel in the human experience because formerly this self-alienation was called “idolatry”, and which is also rampant today in terms of “brand identities” or “brand personalities” and so on. Yet, the present spiritual conditions of self-alienation do not differ much at all from those described by the Psalmist, who could just as well be speaking of “brands” today:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not. They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths. They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them
The zombie, in other words. What the Psalmist is saying here is that narcissism and idolatry are the same issue. But underlying both is the same issue of self-estrangement and self-alienation. This is what Nietzsche objected to in our “flowing out into a god”. This “god” that Nietzsche rejected is Blake’s false god Urizen, Ancient of Days, who is only the image of man’s own self-alienation and self-estrangement — man’s “flowing out” in those terms, and in those terms also the measure of man’s alienation from his or her own vital centre or the core nature which alone is “truth” or “ground of being” or “fountainhead” or “oversoul” or “the Universal Humanity”, and so on. This core, the “You of you”, is also called by Nietzsche, and by Jung, “the Self”, and is called by Gebser “the Itself”. The same is called “Oversoul” by Emerson, “The Aristocrat” by Meister Eckhart, “the Master” by Iain McGilchrist, or just “Life Force Power of the Universe” by Jill Bolte-Taylor or “All-in-all” or “the One” and so on. What McGilchrist calls “the Master” or Gebser calls “the Itself” and what is named “God” are not separate. It is the apartness of the ego-consciousness, or the Emissary, that represents the alienated aspect of the whole. And the Nostos, or return journey from the condition of self-alienation, is the return of the ego-consciousness to its roots or source in “the Itself”. This is the real meaning of “submission” in Islam, which has much the same meaning as the Nostos.
The Nostos is homeward journey from self-alienation as the state of maximal distantiation. This homeward journey is called, variously, the ‘royal road’ or “the Middle Way”, “the Narrow Way”, “Eye of the Needle” or “the Way of the Cross”, “the Path with Heart”, “The Good Red Road”, or, in fact, “Sharia”. They all mean the same. The Sharia, which is today taken to mean “law”, means, in fact, a path that leads through the desert to water. All are equivalently the Nostos of the Prodigal Son — the return or homeward journey through desert or across seas from the condition of self-alienation.
Now, this condition of self-alienation, which is today maximal, is recognised by Nietzsche as human self-loathing — the self-loathing of the automaton, of the zombie, of the “meat puppet” or “naked ape”, and so on. And this situation is dire today for the reasons, given by Gebser and Benjamin, that man’s technological feasibility has grown disproportionate to his sense of responsibility. Technology meets human self-alienation and self-loathing like matter and anti-matter. We have spoken of this problem in relation to robotics and developments in artificial intelligence, for example, let alone climate change, nuclear weaponry, nanoweapons, etc, etc.
So, this problem of human self-alienation has now become critical, intense and acute, for it also manifests psychologically in terms of Angst, or anxiety, superstition, and even into paranoia. In fact, the very word “paranoia” speaks to the problem of self-alienation, because it means literally “beside oneself” or para nous — the mind beside or outside as in “not in one’s right mind” — the eccentric and the centrifugal. And this paranoia is epidemic today, as you may have noticed, and getting worse, along with anxiety, because it is the intensification of the condition and state of self-alienation.
I’ll have more to post about this.