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.