‘Alienation’ reviewed by Chris Ferguson


Columbia University Press, 2014. 304pp., $35.00 / £24.00 hb
ISBN 9780231151986

Reviewed by Chris Ferguson

About the reviewer

Chris Ferguson is studying for a PhD on Alienation and Collective Intentionality at the Centre for …


Rahel Jaeggi’s Alienation is an important contribution to – and rejuvenation of – the philosophical literature on the phenomenon of alienation. It begins with a useful discussion of the ambiguities and contradictions that have plagued traditional uses of the concept and which have arguably led to its diminished use since the 1980s. It then offers a sophisticated and subtle reconstruction of the concept that aims at avoiding the worst of these problems while maintaining its critical power; a power which Jaeggi persuasively places at the heart of critical social theory’s ability to critique existing modes of life.

The central concept that Jaeggi develops is that of appropriation, which describes a particular form of relationship a subject can have to itself and to the world. Alienation is then explicated as the interruption or prevention of an appropriative relation. To understand this relation, it is necessary first to outline Jaeggi’s conception of the subject.

Jaeggi’s theory of the subject – in its ‘unalienated’ form – hangs on the idea of “self-conception”. For Jaeggi, contra the characterisation given by various theorists of alienation, the self is not something essential or given; there is no self behind or prior to its worldly, concrete existence. Rather, the self is conceived of as the self-conception which unifies an individual’s various, fluid desires, beliefs, etc. into a coherent and self-accessible whole. So conceived, this self forms the non-essential, fluid structure which serves as a basis against which the subject’s individual desires, actions, and social roles can be compared. We might therefore characterise the relation between the self and its desires as a bidirectional process: the self is realised – and therefore exists – only in its desires etc., while these are continually evaluated against the self (qua self-conception). This bidirectional process characterises Jaeggi’s notion of “appropriation” (a term which also describes the ‘successful’ incorporation of desires etc. into one’s self-conception as a result of this process). As such, the unalienated subject is conceived of as fluid and adaptable – insofar as it consists in one’s concrete desires etc. which are always accessible to evaluation and transformation – and yet solid enough to act as a basis for the evaluation of the individual desires etc. that the subject experiences.

This bidirectional movement of appropriation is characteristic also of Jaeggi’s account of the individual’s relation to her actions and social roles: a subject’s capacities, desires etc. (i.e., the subject itself) exist only insofar as they are expressed in actions carried out in particular social roles (such that there is no ‘true self’ lying dormant but unexpressed ‘beneath’ one’s concrete existence); and yet the social roles in which the (unalienated) subject’s actions are carried out are always transformed and evaluated against her desires and her self-conception, and thus always bear the mark of the subject. Thus, “appropriation always means a transformation of both poles of the relation.” (38)

Utilising this conception of the self and its relation to itself and the world, Jaeggi details various forms of alienation as various disturbances of the process of appropriation. Thus, the disturbance of the evaluation of social roles against the subject’s desires and self-conception, via ‘the masking of practical questions’ (chapter 5), is one way in which the subject is alienated. In this sense, contra understandings of alienation as separation, alienation remains a relation (insofar as the subject still necessarily relates to social roles by being realized in them); it can thus be characterised as separation within a relationship, or in Jaeggi’s terms, “a relation of relationlessness” (25). Similarly, the disturbance of the process of measuring one’s desires against one’s self-conception (chapter 7) is seen as a form of alienation, as is the breakdown in the self’s realisation of itself in concrete desires, beliefs, roles etc. – as described by the phenomenon of ‘indifference’ (chapter 8). Finally, any situation in which the subject’s self-conception is not coherent, self-accessible or autonomous is seen as another form of alienation.

Jaeggi’s account is both powerful and subtle. Through reference to an impressive range of literature from both continental and analytic philosophical traditions it weaves its way past various blind alleys to sketch a conception of the self and its relation to itself and the world that avoids the worst excesses of ‘essentialist’ conceptions of alienation while forcefully maintaining the possibility of criticism that is often seen to be lost in the “Nietzchean poststructuralist” (186) attack on the subject. Further, it is written in an engaging manner which achieves analytic and theoretical rigour alongside a stimulating, thought-provoking style. Of particular note in this regard is Jaeggi’s ability to explicate readings of several largely Hegelian concepts through engagement with thinkers from other traditions – for example, a discussion of Bildung and “the purification of the drives” with reference to H. Frankfurt, of the social constitution of the subject via Simmel and Plessner, and of the necessity of objectification for self-realization via C. Taylor. Not only do these sections tie the argument to the history of alienation critique while providing much-needed clarity and rigour; they also make these arguments accessible to readers unfamiliar with the tradition in which they originated in a very engaging way.

While much can be said in favour of Jaeggi’s project, then, this is not to say that it is without fault. I would like to raise two points in this regard.

First, while a great deal is said about the relation of appropriation and its conditions of success, the criteria according to which a self-conception is judged as adequate for successful appropriation are insufficiently justified. More problematically, those justifications that are presented are problematic for Jaeggi’s overall project. This project aims to maintain a critique that is ‘immanent’ or, more specifically, based on a “qualified subjectivism” (34). As such, this critique – while ‘qualified’ in the sense of not relying only on the subject’s own ‘feelings’ (one can be ‘alienated’ without ‘feeling’ alienated) – is supposed to rely purely on features of the subject’s experience. This immanence is crucial for Jaeggi’s project, for it makes possible a critique based on neither “paternalism” nor “essentialism”; a possibility that justifies the importance of the concept of alienation in the first place.

The criteria according to which Jaeggi claims we can judge a self-conception as adequate for grounding successful appropriation are: 1) internal coherence, 2) self-accessibility, and 3) “having oneself at one’s command” (121). Criterion 1, I would claim, is incompatible with Jaeggi’s claim of immanence: the notion of coherence presupposes a particular conception of rationality, which necessarily belongs either to the subject under investigation (we thus lose the qualified nature of the ‘qualified subjectivism’ and the possibility of critique “from outside”) or to the critic (thus immanence is lost). Such a conception of rationality is indeed appealed to at various points (e.g., 240 n.44), and (perhaps in light of this) is subsequently softened to a requirement that a self-conception be “oriented toward coherence.” (123) Criterion 2 is expanded by the claim that inaccessible self-conceptions exhibit “functional disturbances” (126) such as “rigidity” (doggedly sticking to old decisions and thus not integrating opposing impulses (127)) or the existence of “taboos and ‘no-go areas’ … that she cannot integrate into her self-conception” (126). This description, however, is problematic in the same way as the coherence criterion. Whether characteristics such as these are viewed as problematic “disturbances” or simply as features of one’s self-identity (for example, sticking to decisions could plausibly be seen as a virtue rather than a disturbance) can ultimately rest either on interpretation by the subject or by the critic, and this criterion therefore again appears incompatible with Jaeggi’s ‘qualified subjectivism’. Criterion 3 is notably unhelpful given its circularity: the location of the “true” self that is to be in “command” is precisely what is at stake throughout the book, and is the question that is supposed to be answered by recourse to a self-conception that satisfies these criteria.

This is not to say that the notion of “functional disturbances” is not potentially useful. However, given the incompatibilities outlined above, it seems that Jaeggi must either abandon the insistence on a ‘qualified subjectivism’ or give more attention to the criteria of adequacy of self-conceptions, particularly given that these are used as the ground on which the normative or critical basis of alienation critique is said to be built.

Second, there is a problematic ambiguity in Jaeggi’s references to “the world.” In many passages, Jaeggi describes the subject’s relation to “the world” (e.g. 5) or “‘the other’ more generally” (189) in a way that implies its being outside of human control in a uniform and undifferentiated way; as something that uniformly presents an “obstinacy” that can be affected but not controlled (15, 189). This portrayal is used to undermine the interpretation of alienation as a form of autonomy as an unrealistic expectation (62), as well as to demonstrate the insufficiency of Marx’s characterisation of non-alienation as “reappropriation”. For Jaeggi, Marx’s “Promethean-expressivism” (12) implies that ‘the world’ that is to be appropriated originated, in an ideal form, in the subject that is to appropriate it. Given that ‘the world’ always pre-dates the individual’s engagement with it, this is seen as untenable.

This characterisation is problematic, for it overlooks the possibility of control of aspects of ‘the world’ – those constituted by human activity, namely social institutions, norms, etc. – by ‘society’ collectively. This problematic characterisation is unavoidable given Jaeggi’s methodological viewpoint of “the perspective of the subject” (151). From this phenomenological viewpoint, social institutions etc. are necessarily seen as ‘given’ and not as candidates for conscious control; for these are not the result of an individual’s activity alone. They are thus seen as possible objects of ‘appropriation’ (and as sites of the realisation that the world has ‘meaning’ for me only insofar as I create this meaning (150)), but not of (collective) ‘reappropriation’ (39) or control. As such, Jaeggi’s descriptions of non-alienation can seem unambitious in comparison to its predecessors: it seems to be satisfied by the individual merely making ‘a mark’ on the world (39) and being able to switch roles (90), and is explicitly distanced from conceptions of “the good life” (33). Jaeggi seems acutely aware of this problem (e.g. 85), and ends the book with a call for further work on the constitution of social institutions etc. to complement the work presented here (220). Nevertheless, the proposal that these components of an understanding of alienation can be separated so rigidly is unsatisfying, and indeed surprising given the stress throughout the book on the internal connection between ‘self’ and ‘world’. The reader is thus often left with the sense that problems are being tackled with a vocabulary that is unsuited to the “apparently paradoxical” (201) nature of the phenomenon under investigation; indeed, Jaeggi often slides from discussion of the individual to discussion of “ourselves” (e.g. 12) and “our own activity” (15) without investigation of the implications of this switch in subject.

[For another review of this work click here]

24 December 2014

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