Idolatry and Self-Alienation
Their idols 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: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. — Psalms 115:4-8
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“
I want to reach back, today, to resurrect an earlier theme — its main theme in fact — from The Dark Age Blog, particularly the relationship between idolatry, “culture of narcissism”, and self-alienation, for they are interweaving issues and processes. The Psalmist’s denunciation of the idols, Walter Benjamin’s observations on self-alienation, and Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” are all riffs on a common theme, including Nietzsche’s objections to our “flowing out into a God”. In many respects also, fundamentalism and reductionism are also implicated in idolatry and self-alienation. In effect self-alienation is idolatry, and idolatry is narcissism.
Self-alienation is the investment of identity — even of individuality — in externalities, be these externalities “brands”, or money, or ideologies, or nationalities, or race, or gender, “power objects” and so on. Self-alienation is otherwise called “projection”. Once the identity becomes fully invested in the externalities, or projected into the externalities, they become idols or fetishes, and any change in the externalities is sensed as an attack on the identity.
The idols, now invested with the life or vitality that properly belongs to the subject, but which has become alienated in the externalities, will be defended by all means. Much of this is what we imply by “post-rational” or “post-truth society”. It is the defence of the idols, the images, which have been invested with their own “mana” and are enlivened to the same degree as the self is emptied and alienated in them. The defence of the idols even becomes a life and death issue since the identity is so much invested in them. This is called “projection”. In a sense, the idols are symbolic forms that have become opaque to insight and have become, then, fetishes.
What Gebser refers to as “transparency” is equivalent, then, to the withdrawl of the projections in that sense, that the idols are again rightly seen as symbolic forms.
Since this is a world of time and death — for all things pass away and all things are subject to the law of impermanence — so too do the idols — (Plato’s “shadows” in the parable of the cave) — and since identity is so heavily invested in these externalities and in these “shadows”, time and change processes are experienced as an existential threat leading to reactionary responses. The practice of “deconstruction” might be, for some, an emancipation of the mind from the “mind-forg’d manacles”, but for others it is an attack on the identity itself.
The original practice of “disinterestedness” in science was to counter what Francis Bacon called “the Four Idols“, and was quite equivalent to the practice of “mindfulness” or “non-attachment” in Buddhism. But “disinterestedness” has since decayed into something else altogether — objectification and reductionism and the presumption of “value-free science”. Objectification, in this sense, bears enough resemblance to mindfulness or non-attachment to be confused with it, however. So much of contemporary science is now as much idolatry and narcissism as you find anywhere, caught up in a labyrinth of its own projections and objectifications, and so much so that it has raised alarm even among other scientists (including Einstein).
It is this self-alienation into the idols of the tribe, idols of the marketplace, idols of race or the idols of abstraction, and so on that is described as “trance” or “sleepwalking” or “delusion” or “narcissism” and such terms, and its the sorceric manipulation of the idols in which individual and collective identity is invested that leads to “technocratic shamanism” or “meme magick” and “branded behaviours” for that matter.
When ideas or the forms cease to be transparent, then you have idolatry. This is the meaning of Blake’s distinction between seeing “with the eye” or “thro’ the eye”, and in that sense it is quite true that only a hair separates the false from the true, and the superstition from the fact. The difference lies in the opacity and the transparency of the forms, and the difference between sightedness and insightfulness.
If so much deceit, duplicity, falsehood, prevarication, dissembling, pretense and such is being expended today in defence of the idols of the tribe, of the marketplace, of the mind, it is because it is “the twilight of the idols” as Nietzsche forecast, and the processes of “disintegration” and “fragmentation” also involve the decay of the idols which, because of self-alienation and self-objectification, is felt and sensed as a threat to identity. If anything, Iain McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of consciousness (in The Master and His Emissary) is a Grand Idolator.
It’s in this sense that Nietzsche’s “twilight of the idols” and “chaotic transition” are identical processes. In chaotic transition, past and future are at war with each other, and as usual in such conflicts, truth and reason are always the first victims.
It’s all about preserving the idols, because of the identity invested in the idols, for “they that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them”, and this is what Benjamin describes as “self-alienation”.