Language as alienation

This was written as a companion piece and response to an earlier post, Abstract and concrete language in debate.

Commodification is the process of valuing items according to what they can be exchanged for [1]. Exchange generally takes the form of money, but it can hypothetically be anything, as in Smith’s infamous yet rarely-existing barter [2]. The traditional critique of commodification comes from Marx and briefly states that in commodifying a thing, be it immaterial or material, we are reducing its existence to one concept and ignoring all others. In this frame, the only thing that matters is the exchange-value, the dollars we can swap it for. The other qualities of the thing are irrelevant and increasingly do not at all determine its exchange-value, as they did in the time of Marx and the other classical economists [3]. Regardless of the source of the “value” of an item or concept, through commodification, those values are stripped away, to leave only price to represent it. In so doing, we impoverish our existence, reduce ourselves to one-dimensional creatures and our limit behaviour to a single way of examining the world and our interactions.

After recently reading the first chapter of Adorno and Horkmeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment [4], and previously reading Writing and Seeing Architecture, by Protzamparc and Sollers [5], I realise this critique of contemporary life does not go far enough in its questioning of abstraction. As commodification reduces items and concepts to a single simplified, abstract, quantifiable representation, that of money, so science and its tool, abstract language, reduce all experience to a single concept, that of their relation to and use by humans in the pursuit of some goal. These goals in the era of modernity and postmodernity have been varied, but have mostly revolved around Kant’s suggestion that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance form another” [6]. From this, we see the goal as being the project of understanding the world and acting on it in a controlled, useful manner. As Adorno and Horkheimer point out, this requires the reduction of the world as it exists and as we sense it, to representations which are solely relative to us as humans, for the requirements we have, rather than in terms which are inherent to the object or concept. These two positions, that of sensing and of representing, lie along a continuum; of course there is no possibility of referring to anything without some hint of a human’s relation to that thing, but it appears science and modernity have pushed us ever closer to a more abstract, human-oriented view of the world. Similarly to commodification, this reduces our world, impoverishes our experience, alienates us from the world, exactly as we gain more understanding of it. No longer are we able or permitted to merely engage with the world according to our senses, feelings and emotions, we must abstract away from those and replace them with a world view constructed entirely of our own making, in our heads, using non-worldly, non-sense-based, images and ideas we overlay on existence. I suggest that this is similar in form to commodification; it is more expressive no doubt, but it is not the totality of the thing, merely a human-produced representation. The more we refine that representation, the more it obscures the original, tending towards Baudrillard’s simulacra [7].

It appears we have discovered the positive in the non-representational/sensory/concrete interpretation of the world, a position referenced as less important in the earlier post on this topic. We might also go along with Adorno and Horkheimer in stating that abstraction is one of the key process, if not the defining factor, of the enlightenment project, which lends a distinctly deterministic air to the process of commodification. It furtherĀ  raises questions about the seeming contradiction of using abstract language to dissent against the use of markets and commodification.

There have been various techniques and mechanisms suggested to reduce this condition of being elsewhere, from meditation, to mindfulness to simply turning off the computer/mobile device (it is an interesting although unsurprising artefact of the omnipresent Unix philosophy that all communication should be in human language [8] and thus be a series of abstractions). We might add to this list anything which brings us closer to the thing itself, such as rejecting mass-produced food, walking instead of driving or engaging in immanent rather than transcendent governance. Immanent versus transcendent is probably another way of viewing abstract versus concrete. All of these ideas, while useful, feel to me trite and simplistic, as if suggesting they only solve part of the problem, as if there is a gap between the two which is unfulfilled. Is there no way to engage with complicated, non-sensory ideas and concepts which is not alienating? Is the solution to this alienation nothing more than a “balance” between the sensory and the representational? Looking ahead to fantasy science-fiction, how would so-called “thought-reading” affect this, would that still entail a level of abstraction or would the short-circuiting of language remove it?

[2] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Chapter 2
[4] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pages 6-7
[5] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Page 46

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