Hi, Lizard – sorry, mate, this just won’t do. I’m referring to your “goats and aliens” piece in which you flag the notion that alienated people “might have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society”. I think this notion is self-contradictory and that your argument makes a logical—or, rather, illogical—leap when you switch from a subjective perspective to that of a hypothetical “disinterested observer”. You gloss over fundamental ambiguities, such as whether alienation is a psychological or philosophical condition, and you end up proposing a synthetic answer to an empirical question (which is rather suspect, if it’s meant to be the result of disinterested observation).
I’ll reference your points and make observations about each one.
- “What has occurred to me…is that people like us—alienated people—might have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society.
The whole point of being alienated is that you’re on the margins of society or completely outside it. You have no relationship with society and no function within it, other than to submit to its demands—which, being alienated, you can’t in all conscience do.
- The idea came to me during a weekend spent struggling with some familiar demons…. So, let’s take a step back and look at this from a broader perspective—not my subjective point of view alone, but that of a disinterested observer assessing society in the round.
This seems very convenient. How can you simply switch perspective like that? There is an emotional cost to being alienated, and it usually involves being anxious, isolated, angry and depressed. These are chronic ailments, not a temporary excursion such as a “weekend struggling with some familiar demons”.
Weekends at The Lizard’s
This is a structural shift in your argument from the psychological to the philosophical, which you fail to acknowledge. More importantly, there is a much wider question as to whether alienation is a psychological or philosophical condition, or both, but you ignore it. I don’t necessarily expect you to answer the question (has anyone, yet?) but you could at least point to it and note the ambiguity it creates.
- Let’s assume that this observer subscribes to your Alienation Theory of History and sees our society and its existential discontents as the consequence, ultimately, of the human crisis that occurred when the hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually gave way to settled, urban life.… In real time, with the toing and froing between these opposite poles possibly resembling a sort of Hegelian dialectic, this society might even appear to be (from the outside) a self-compensating system.
This is another structural shift, in which you evoke an external construct (the Alienation Theory of History) arbitrarily, adding a synthetic dimension to what you have otherwise presented as an empirical proposition. You’re now discussing alienation, or purporting to do so, while drawing on knowledge acquired through relationships. Hardly a purist’s position, and one that is surely fundamentally self-contradictory!
I’ll quote the rest of your piece from this point in full.
- I find this idea rather interesting. What if our agonising and writing about the human condition is not just the private malady we’ve always considered it to be, but also the way in which society makes up for its materialistic excesses, even if this arrangement isn’t officially recognised and those who are perpetrating the excesses don’t give a fig about us. [ Perhaps, like the scapegoats of the Old Testament, our role is to atone for the sins of others? We suffer to make up for the fact that they don’t. [There are dangers implicit in this idea, of course: we should be wary of developing a Messiah complex. But it’s positive in the sense that it gives us some social context and provides a link between us and those who, in their preoccupation with material concerns, are oblivious to us and the wider meaning of their lives.
The contradiction is blatant here: you’ve squared the circle, inserted a round peg into a square hole; you’ve imagined the alienated as having a place in society. Worse than that, you’ve assigned them a subservient role. Have you considered the political implications of this? Very often it’s the outsiders who initiate change and progress; what you’re proposing here is an essentially conservative model in which the alienated, whether they’re being critical of the status quo or collaborative with it, are basically serving it. Your conversation has morphed miraculously from being about the individual and the human condition to being about institutions, and the relationship between them. You’re no longer talking about alienation, for Christ’s sake—you’re talking about Church and State!!!
I mean, SERIOUSLY???
Pic: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Alexandre Louis Leloir (1865)