Intimate Alienation

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I was reading through UMW Blogs this morning, and I came across a post on Mara’s Blog titled “Toys and Intimate Alienation.” The title intrigued me immediately, and the post offers a quick summary of a section of Anne Allison’s Millenial Monsters—a critical study of toys in post-war Japan. [openbook booknumber=”0520245652″ ] The book sounds fascinating, and I’m particularly drawn to this idea of “intimate alienation” that is discussed:

…“intimate alienation,” a term which she [Anne Allison] references a 1999 article by James A. Fujii,…is when you are doing something alone and disconnected from others but simultaneously you are in a place that is “shared” by others.

This concept seems ever more relevant these days, and it reminds me of something Alan Levine (Cogdog) said, via this tweet by Brian Lamb yesterday, during his presentation at Northern Voice yesterday:

@cogdog said his online life felt more real than physical one, people laughed. But that’s not crazy. ‘Real’ life is often mediated bullshit.

The idea that Cogdog’s online life is in many ways more real than the physical world might seem somewhat insane to some, but it hits home in so many ways for me, which also seems the case for Brian. So, when I came across this idea of “intimate alienation” this morning, something clicked in regards to how a number of people understand the mediated, virtual space of the internet as their real life. The very term alienation carries with it a whole series of Marxist connotations around capitalism’s logic of fragmenting any attempts at an emerging class consciousness. It’s often framed by an intimacy not between people but, as Georg Lukács suggests, and intimacy mediated by things that obfuscate real, meaningful social relations. A condition wherein interaction between people is mediated by consumer goods, making the very possibility of relationships outside of these very things extremely difficult, if not impossible.

This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the “real world” given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. A reality that has been woven into just about every facet of modern life from work and education to even more intimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life. They are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships, but are at the same time premised upon an irrepressible faith in objects: their perfection, increased performance, speed, mobility, ubiquity, etc. It might be understood as an almost religious Positivism wherein social relations are premised on the cumulative logic of a product—in this case computers or the internet (is the internet a product?)—while at the same time the product itself is somehow objective or neutral in the resulting relationships such a platform provides.

This is where this idea of “intimate alienation” seems to capture the real difficulty of our moment, because we are sharing our alienation, we have congregated around that fact in mass numbers. And while many still hail the Googles, Apples, and Microsofts of the world, there is also a growing movement of organized alienation which challenges some of our assumptions about distributed intimacy and the necessary logic of capitalism as alienating. Might have capitalism produced a product that undoes itself? Might the internet be just such an example? Think about the way it explodes the industrial logic (and by extension the model for profit) of distributing information, media, culture, and education, but even more profoundly interpersonal relationships, intimacy, and a kind of re-imagined sense of both the self and the real. The idea of “intimate alienation” captures this strange, unmapped, and unevenly developed space beautifully in my imagination, albeit I am most definitely far afield from the original concept by this point. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think we, as an internet-connected culture, are simultaneously more alienated and connected than ever before, which is at once terrifying and amazing, and I don’t really know how to conceptualize it, no less make any sense of it. It is my life, and it scares me.

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9 Responses to Intimate Alienation

  1. Chris L says:

    Wait, capitalism hasn’t already undone itself?

    Seriously, some interesting things to think about here that I’ll have to come back to. It’s interesting to me that anyone really questions the relative “reality” of what we call the virtual world. Not just because, once again, the argument that it’s NOT is just another assumption of technological determinism which, perversely, aligns itself with the “social networks as tools” way of thinking that is practically paleololithic at this point.

    And, at another level of intensity, didn’t Chuang Tzu really get it when he asked us dreamers if we were men dreaming we were butterflies or butterflies dreaming we were men?

    Do we really think our contingent reality is all that, girlfriend?

  2. Reverend says:


    What’s interesting to me is that the logic of social networks as tools is very much alive, tools for advertising, making money (even if unsuccessfully), and mining data. Data in this regard is what is at the cold heart of the tool-based logic of making these boxes more intelligent, right? The idea that we are the network is one I subscribe to to some degree, yet the network uses us, it’s a constitutive relationship that re-shapes the very thing it was—which I think challenges technological determinism but raises questions of the built virtual environment. A network like Facebook, for example, is as much about creating a directory logic of the web that can be indexed and commodofied as it is about bringing long lost elementary school friends into contact—the two—in this built environment—are co-dependent but not inevitable. At a recent “Social Networking” committee meeting— which is really not about connecting people necessarily but about getting information about students, alumni, etc. It became apparent that the web is very much still thought of as a way of mining data for institutional purposes, a trend that worships and means through figures, aggregates, and statistical trends.

    I think out contingent reality is a struggle, and the space for that struggle is online right now—and the model for its future is in flux—it is anything but determined—yet whee are all the theorists? Whose thinking through out mediated alternatives to figures and data?

  3. Chris L says:

    @Rev we don’t disagree, I think, but you can’t get away from framing and in this case we are agreeing but still framing the whole thing differently. The network being an environment we live in is, to my way of thinking, beyond debate. The question, of course, is who “we” are and what those who are outside of that sphere of understanding– willfully or not– mean.

    However, and this is where I say seriously that in this respect my soul might already have been sold, we differ on an important point: you write that the commodification and contact are “co-dependent” but not “inevitable,” which is a position I can’t agree with. Where’s the evidence that these facets *aren’t* inevitable? What’s inevitable is the “fact” that the humans in the network are increasingly the network and in my opinion that inexorable trend will trump all else in the biggest picture. But it won’t spell the end of people and their actions as data– it will, in fact, enhance it because those motives are not reliant on the composition of the network.

    I love philosophy more than the next guy/gal, but even if I have to admit that the theorists are never the ones that lead… they are either ahead of their time and later adopted or follow slightly behind the world of practice. I’m not joking that Chuang Tzu nailed it in its essence… but that doesn’t mean I don’t also think that the theorists we *need* (as opposed to the ones I might also enjoy for other reasons) are those who are in the system using it and maintaining a space and culture of engagement and healthy conflict, people like you, Gardner Campbell, etc.

    Personally, I don’t believe that there’s any hope of averting the movement of media co-option, data mining, selling and buying to people as consumers and data within the foreseeable future. It’s essentially the same as the question of subverting the academic institution except that in the latter case many know that the institution is entrenched and will have to be “destroyed to be saved” but in the case of the global social network many of the same to think *that* institution is different.

    I’m not without hope, but not hopeful either. I find solace in the fact that living and creating at the highest levels, which is what finally most of us are really talking about, has always been a marginalized, sometimes-subversive, niche with a vortex of radical tension between individuals and their networks.

  4. Chris L says:

    The great thing about my mind is that I can start by asserting our agreement then go on to talk myself into disagreement. Western logic isn’t sufficient for me, though not to due to any particular prodigiousness or Whitmanicity (I’m on a roll coining new words for my addled reality).

  5. Chris L says:

    What’s up with the demise of comment editing ability? Downside: I sound utterly incoherent. Upside: my comment count just keeps increasing. I may be in the Top 10 of Bavalove next time around.

  6. Reverend says:

    Chris Lott,

    You, my friend, are radical. And your comment above suggests more powerfully than anything else could, the great loss we are experiencing without you blogging regularly, and that’s more than a hint, it’s a gauntlet 😉

    What’s wild about your comment, and your second comment in the second movement suggests this, is the tension you trace, and I think it is true of my incoherent thoughts here as well, between being not without hope, but not hopeful. And your suggestion—which will probably prove dead on— that “averting the movement of media co-option, data mining, selling and buying to people as consumers and data within the foreseeable future” is inevitable, I just wonder how the inevitable spaces of a cycle like that becomes any less disheartening or true or false than technological determinism. There is a larger market determinism at the heart of much of what is happening in the world right now that is premised on a financial determinism that the capitalist system is still the best and only model. Which makes the commentary going on currently around Keynsian economics, stimulus packages and China over at that much more fascinating. I don’t care if he is necessarily right, but the idea that he can imagine an alternative and think it through to some degree beyond formulas and data crunching makes the argument remarkable to me. And while Marxism is by no means a new idea, it seems it to me sometimes, or even the ability to imagine past it through a whole new built environment of the internet that so few are considering to be one of the major forces at the heart of some serious institutional instability, right up there with the housing crash, toxic derivatives, and the credit market. I just can;t think through the idea that this space has to follow the tired and true logic of capital, it could be something else entirely. We just need to think it, build it, make it. We don;t have a shortage of possibilities, just ideas. Just imagination. Why do we have to cattle through the same cycles of servitude? I don;t know, but that tension is real, because I think we both hope more than not, yet hope is doesn’t float. It must be buoyed by an architecture of imagination, and there is where your comments nails it, an imaginative avante-garde—the artist again at the fore and the power never more in need to demonstrate how vast a new landscape of imagination can be. Which leaves this comment where it begun, with a gauntlet on the floor for any poet who dare pick it up 😉

  7. I’m sitting in a waiting room about to go into a meeting, so what I am about to add here is based on not having read the discussion after your post, but I wanted to say – I agree…

    Also, reading your post had me thinking about some other form of social conditioning that uses alienation to bond people. The army. The initial employment training disconnects them from their “real life”, this alienation gives them hardship, they turn to each other for the surrogate intamacy.. and from there I’m not sure what emerges. Ellitism? Sadism? Fascism?

  8. Reverend says:


    First of all I love the idea of you framing the space of your comment and where you are writing it, I don;t know if it was intentional given the post, but it is a beautiful touch, and the “waiting room” has it’s own space within capital. A holding cell, and this is what your brilliant example of the Army points out, the alienation is a method, and approach. It is not imagined or pretended, it is real—to play with that fraught concept a bit more. Your example makes me think of the prison system and Foucault’s writing about the transofrmation of punishment from a public display via executuon, britality, etc. to an invisible space of alientation and constant internal monitoring. There is no providential order, just the hell of relations with power. And if you think about the internet and our space on it, it is so perfectly framed as an isolated community that may be connecte and real, but at the same time makes the physical world that much more frightening.

    Here’s crazy example that is off the mark, but I’ll say it anyway. The other day i was sitting in a dark house with my kids in the attic watching movies. I was blogging, they were ingesting TV, we were effectively cut-off from the outside world on our block. All of a sudden I hear a pounding on the door (my blogging chair is right next to the front door) and I jumped about ten feet. I was petrified, I go tot he door and it is a Sheriff, who is looking mean and has piece of paper he wants to give me. A million ideas went through my mind, something I did online ahs caught up to me (not that I ever did anything wrong) but the physical world became the interface of power actually doing something to me for some freedom I may pretend to online. Turns out I have to serve as a juror next month.

    But it stung. You all in New Zealand are looking down the barrel of the gun on the internet side, but if you look at the RIAA’s new deal with ISPs, that same thing is not far off for the US and other countries. We are all alienated, and we have no public spaces to congregate in the built environment or web spaces that aren;t mediated by some colonizing, commodifying space. The online world may be real, and it is reproducing the real problems of the physical one, and make us even less able to deal with the latter as a collective. I don;t know, it’s all fucking weird, it’s got me pulling a PKD sometimes.

  9. Steven Egan says:

    There is an anime called Digimon that comes to mind because of what they call the Digital World. Digimon is short for digital monster, creatures of the digital world. The digital world came from the mix of computer software and the powers of the realm of imagination, or whatever that place is called. The point is that it is a mix of imagination and technology that created the digital world in a story world. That’s what immediately came to mind after reading the post. The other thing to come to mind was a post I made back in October, Transreality Enlightenment: .

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