Marx and Freud diagnosed the modern condition as one of alienation. People are increasingly cut off from the relations that sustain them – economic, social, political, and even physical. The response has been a return to community – localist movements, community building, practices that emphasize the relations rather than the transactions. While I think this is a positive move, I question whether it offers the relief from alienation that we desire.
We feel alienated – depressed, disconnected, uncertain, precarious, and vulnerable – and so we seek out connection. We seek it, more often than not, in those spaces and with those others that are comfortable and most like ourselves. At the end of last year, I met a woman who was part of an “intentional community” in DC. There are, in fact, many of these – an entire network! They are essentially group houses where lots of young professionals, interns, college students and others come together to rent a house and share costs. These “intentional community” homes go a step further. They seek out people who are interested in a particular lifestyle and work together within the community of the house to make that lifestyle a reality. In this woman’s house, they were committed to a completely vegan diet, shared everything, and had weekly meetings to discuss house issues. While I don’t have any qualm with those values in particular, the retreat into this relatively homogeneous community was unsettling to me. One man had applied to join the house but wanted to be able to eat fish that he caught. From the woman’s story, it sounded as if he went to great lengths to compromise – keeping the fish in a cooler in the basement separate from all other food, and preparing and consuming it away from all other food preparation and consumption. However, the compromise was not enough for her or the others in the house – meat of any kind would simply not be allowed. This made me skeptical of the communitarian movements that are so common today, and whether they are the cure for alienation that we seek.
Alienation is the result of disconnection and isolation – the breakdown or abstraction of constitutive relations. The retreat into community, it seems to me, may fit very well in an alienated world. If you can slip easily and quietly into your community in the evenings and on weekends, then your alienation the rest of the time might be a little more bearable. But producing a community that is homogeneous and isolated is simply another form of alienation – a shared alienation.
Another way of looking at it is that alienation is a condition of the system of modernity in which we find ourselves. This is the insight of Marx and Freud, because the fact of alienation itself was not in doubt in the early industrial era. What they made apparent is that alienation is not a condition of individuals but of the collective world in which we live. If that’s the case, then a retreat into community might provide temporary solace, but never the true cure for alienation that we seek because it only changes the internal conditions of the community and not the relations that constitute our alienated existence.
So what’s the alternative? If we can’t cure alienation by building community, then what can we do? If alienation is the condition of the world we live in, then the cure for alienation, it seems, might be to seek connection in the most alien places possible. To ignore entirely the constraints imposed upon us by the world and seek new forms of interconnection – alien, monstrous, perverse, taboo, hybrid, and unnatural. To seek out (inter-class) contact rather than (intra-class) networking.
These kinds of alien connections entail a risk – an acceptance of vulnerability. There is danger in relating to something that is wholly other and alien. Communication may fail. Some relations may be painful or destructive. These are precisely the kinds of relations that are fled from in the retreat to community – the uncomfortable, uneasy, and dangerous relations. But the retreat into community is a retreat into the world of alienation and not an escape from it. Escape takes effort.
That’s not to say we can’t do both – build community and seek out other forms of connection as well. In some cases, the two may not be mutually exclusive, in others they may. It’s just to say that community building, in itself, is not the cure for alienation. The cure lies in breaking down the barriers that define community in our alienated world and composing new forms of relation that might begin to constitute a new world. This cannot happen as long as we seek out the easy, the comfortable, and the risk-free.