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Domenach versus Alienation

Internationale Situationniste #10 (March 1966)

Translated by Ken Knabb

“ALIENATION, THAT key word for a whole system of politics, sociology, and critical thought — what does it cover? J.M. Domenach traces the astonishing itinerary of this concept of such diverse meanings, from Hegel to Jacques Berque. Then he takes another look at its content. It seems to him that the moment has come to renounce this ‘hospital concept’ where all the maladies of the century are lumped together, and to call into question the philosophy that developed it.”

This prefatory note from the journal Esprit (December 1965) is not betrayed by the extraordinary impudence of Domenach’s article, “Let’s Get Rid of Alienation,” which opens the same issue. Domenach, prince of that notable province of contemporary confusionism, Christian leftism, reproaches the concept of alienation for being confused, for being used improperly, for having considerably evolved historically, and for having given rise to too many “vague and outmoded” formulas. If everything that was vague was therefore outmoded, religious thought would not have survived the rationalist clarification brought into the world by bourgeois society. But in a materially divided society, vague ideas and the vague use of precise concepts serve definite forces. The history of the concept of alienation, as Domenach recounts it in a few pages, is itself a perfect example of vague thought serving a specific confusionism. [...]

Domenach does not even want to “get rid of” the concept of alienation like that philosopher depicted in The German Ideology who wanted to liberate humanity from the idea of gravity so that there would be no more drownings. Domenach wants people to stop talking about alienation so that they will become resigned to it. [...] The alienation banished from consciousness is to be replaced by the more “precise” concept of exploitation. While it is true that the general alienation in the East and the West is effectively based on the exploitation of the workers, the evolution of modern capitalism — and still more, bureaucratic ideology — have largely succeeded in masking the Marxist analyses of exploitation at the stage of free competition and in making the handling of them less precise. In contrast, these parallel evolutions have brought alienation — which was originally a philosophical concept — into the reality of every hour of daily life. [...]

To be sure, in a society that needs to spread a mass pseudoculture and to have its spectacular pseudointellectuals monopolize the stage, many terms are naturally rapidly vulgarized. But for the same reasons, perfectly simple and illuminating words tend to disappear: such as the word priest; so that Domenach and his friends come to think that no one will ever again remind them of this embarrassing vulgarity. They are mistaken. Just as the secular efforts of a Revel (En France) to compile a list of words to forbid, a list that mixes a few fashionable trivialities with important contested terms, are ridiculous because one cannot hope to simultaneously suppress the theoretical discoveries of our time and the interested confusion to which they give rise in order to “return” to some simplified rationalism which never had the efficacy the nostalgic liberals now attribute to it. [...]

People like Domenach, being themselves valets of the establishment’s cultural spectacle, which wants to quickly coopt for its own use the most crucial terms of modern critical thought, will never want to admit that the truest and most important concepts of the era — alienation, dialectics, communism — are precisely marked by the organization around them of the greatest confusions and the worst misinterpretations. Vital concepts are simultaneously subject to the truest and the most false uses, along with a multitude of intermediary confusions, because the struggle between critical reality and the apologetic spectacle leads to a struggle over words, a struggle that is more bitter the more those words are central. The truth of a concept is not revealed by an authoritarian purge, but by the coherence of its use in theory and in practical life. It is not important that a priest at the pulpit renounces the use of a concept that he would in any case never case have known how to use. Let us speak vulgarly since we’re dealing with priests: alienation is the point of departure for everything — providing that one departs from it.