Sunday, February 4, 2018
Alienation I: Self Versus Body
What does alienation mean?
Being isolated from a group or activity in which one should be involved.
In other words, you’re split off from yourself in some way, or from the world.
In Marxist theory, alienation refers to how work, in most cases, alienates persons from themselves. In other words, you manage a local Starbucks not because you love it, but because you have to pay your student loans. As a result, you become alienated from your authentic self, your true desires for productive activity.
The topic of alienation is big in psychoanalysis.
I endeavor to explore it, over time, from several different angles, beginning today with the alienation resulting from the mind-body split.
Kinda strange, don’t ya think, to even think of yourself as having a body? I mean, how can we have it?
We are it!
If you look at your hand, you think of it as your hand.
If you injure it, you consult a physician and tell her,
“I’ve hurt my hand.”
But it’s actually you!!
Your hand is just an extension of the rest of your body.
(No wonder medical professionals refer to arms, hands, legs and feet as extremities; but, don’t worry, they’re just as alienated as the rest of us).
Your hand is yours; your self also includes a hand.
Consider all the ways you exist as a body, as a creature:
You drink fluids and ingest food.
You urinate, sweat, and defecate, disposing of bodily waste.
You have sex—dressing it up as making love, enjoying sexual activities, or fucking. Animals do the same thing, only quicker.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 18th century, and Jacques Lacan, in the 20th, pointed out how we humans gussy up our animal natures.
Fancy restaurants hide how we behave much like animals eating prey. We use white table clothes, utensils, and methods of cooking to create a meal we then consume (or devour).
Bathrooms—in our homes, restaurants, gas stations, offices—sanitize our elimination of waste. We have toilet paper for defecation, urinals or toilets for urination, and paper towels for sweat.
Hiding or masking sexuality became a multi-billion dollar business well before the massive revenues from erectile dysfunction drugs came pouring in. Humanity learned, centuries ago, to dress up sex through satin sheets, Victoria Secret, and a frightening variety of sex toys.
Despite our animal nature, we, in truth, mostly live in the world of the mind. If you accept monism—the philosophy that all things are ultimately one—then you accept that mind and body are related. Mind emerges from our brains, our central nervous systems, and our bodies. We are embodied beings.
But it’s not as simple as that.
We need air, water, food. We like our ways of hiding, our restaurants, our bathrooms, and our Victoria Secret stores.
As it turned out, we ended up becoming the talking monkeys. Language facilitated communication, communication lead to culture, culture influenced bodies, and on and on in an infinite regress.
So what’s the point?
Effective living requires achieving as much integration as possible, striving to see beyond the mind-body dichotomy.
Because the dichotomy creates alienation. You look in the mirror, see a self, and become confused. The dichotomy creates a sense that we are, as human beings, somehow mentally, spiritually, different.
Alienation also creates problems between us and the world. Every type of pollution, for example, represents a form of alienation, of dissociation. That can you see tossed from a car window becomes part of our world, part of us; whoever threw it cannot see that.
Transcending the alienation may well be impossible.
I often think we cannot help but split mind from body. It’s too difficult. Perhaps it is hard wired into our central nervous systems.
The Eastern philosophies offer an integrative path, but it takes practice. Meditation and yoga both offer vehicles for experiencing an integrated being. The experience may be short-lived, but it can be achieved.
Meanwhile, the split, the dissociation lives on. At least you understand your arm is your arm but is also you. You perceive the paradox of the two viewpoints.
That ain’t bad.
Perhaps the easiest path to integration, to avoiding alienation, is recognizing the interlocking, awesome mystery of it all. Instead of the simple split between your self and your hand, for example, you strive to perceive the dynamic, ever-flowing dance of nature.
Charles Darwin got it.
You sense it in his writing towards the end of his Origin of the Species, where he acknowledges the:
grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Ah, yes, the grandeur, the wonder, the beauty, and the endless cycling.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP