In 1952 the conservative sociologist (and literally, I should note, a former Nazi one of whose students, Fritz Arlt, was a key functionary in the destruction of Poland’s Jews) Arnold Gehlen published a famous paper entitled “Over the birth of freedom from alienation.” The paper had two goals. One was to establish the essentially idealistic geneology of Marx’s notion of alienation. Gehlen traces it back to Fichte’s notion that the I in actualizing and externalizing itself experiences some essential loss of control. That feeling of loss and the desire to reestablish total control of the ego’s activity is compared, by Gehlen, to the French revolutionary terrorist program to establish total control in order to have total freedom – except, as Gehlen amusingly puts it, Fichte was just storming the Bastille of his own head. The idealistic assumption about the total I, here, is then traced through its appearance in Schelling and Hegel up through Marx and, to an extent, Freud.
As Gehlen says, Fichte’s insight was a genuine idea – and genuine ideas are rare in philosophy. Instead of claiming that Fichte is simply wrong about the “I” and its self-activity, Gehlen claims that alienation, as it develops in German idealist philosophy, describes a genuine phenomenon. That phenomenon concerns a two-fold sense of the world: on the one hand, the feeling that “man” or some creator has constructed the world, and on the other hand, the feeling that the creator is in the power of the created. This feeling, of course, slips from man the collective to oneself as the individual, a part of a partial collective. This powerful explanatory schema was employed, according to Gehlen, by the next generation of left Hegelians, like Feuerbach, to explain and demystify religious belief. God, it turns out, is a perfect symbol of the alienation process at work: man creates God, and then reverses the relationship so that it is God, in myth, who creates man. That historical and intellectual reversal is, perhaps, the central property of myth. Myth in this enlightment sense is that which both perceives the power relationships implicated in the real and reverses them. Thus, myth cannot be dispelled simply by claiming that myth is a lie – an illusion is not a lie. It is a genuine phenomenon out in the world. Here Gehlen is content to point to how illusion is laid on the table and understood, freeing us from it. Myself, I think he could have gone further: it must be dissipated not by analysis, but by the movement of the angle of one’s vision. Analysis might convince one that what one is seeing is an illusion, but only that practical movement can dissipate the illusion.
But Gehlen isn’t just investigating the idealistic background of Marx’s comments in The German Ideology. He is also interested in Fichte’s idea on account of his own idea – that the human being characterized by a fundamental lack, which is at the nucleus of her or his consciousness. Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology might argue with the details of Fichte’s sense of the I, but not with the general structure. Fichte, according to Gehlen, characterized the lack of control to which the I is condemned as the realm of bondage, of unfreedom. Here’s the rub, for Gehlen: in fact, the dream of total control, of the identity, say, of product and intention, is not the highest degree of freedom, but instead an erroneous reading of what freedom is all about. As Gehlen puts it, in a rhetorical flourish that would gain the approval of any Cold War liberal anti-communist: “Whosever enthusiastically realizes the feeling of freedom and the great determnation of man, whosever wishes to live out this titanic relief into which this feeling streams, whoever in this thought feels his heart beating more strongly, will, by an enigmatic destiny, find himself becoming the pacesetter of the Guillotine.”
Of course, Gehlen’s words are harder to read if we put them against the background of the pacesetters of the concentration camp, like his former student Arlt, whose thesis comparing “Israelite” women and Icelandic women – to the advantage of the former – was passed right on through by his thesis advisor. But looking aside from this: Gehlen’s notion is that the moment of alienation is not a moment in which freedom is lost, but is, rather, when it becomes a practical reality. Freedom is never direct: Humans can to themselves and their kind only maintain enduringly an indirect relationship, they must take a detour, alienate themselves, find themselves, and for this purpose we have institutions. These are the clearly human produced forms, as Marx saw correctly, in which the spiritual, an even in its greatest riches and pathos an undulating material, is realized, is interlaced in the flow of things and is thereby able to endure.”
This perspective, which welcomes alienation, bears the distinct flavor the capitalist consensus of the time – when, of course, the mention of alienation could not be avoided. It lives on when alienation is no longer a word to conjure with – has been almost unanimously junked by both the rational choice right and the rational choice left.
However, I am suspicious of this junking, its motives and its function. I'll return to this another time.