Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

Let me now turn to fleshing out an object-relational formulation of alienation by applying it to a critical understanding of how and why this “laming of the personality” occurs.

Capitalism and Its Inherent Malaise

In understanding this or any society and its ways, it is central to grasp how that society organizes to make, get, and use its supplies. This may seem to be a stupefyingly self-evident observation. It is, however, easy to overlook that supplies, viewed psychodynamically, are far from fully encompassed by the traditional concrete conceptualization as food, clothing, and shelter. A supply, then, is anything concrete or abstract that is necessary to be exchanged by humans for life to subsist and to flourish. C. Fred Alford (1988), for instance, asserts that from the work of Melanie Klein we see how “love and hate are the preeminent passions…. It is they that make the world go around” (p. 8). Love and Hate, along with their many affective, behavioral, personality, and relational relatives and offshoots, may be understood as a kind of primal supplies, and are present in some socially shaped form in virtually every social setting.

A culture’s ways of producing, distributing, and using its supplies, whether they are in concrete and/or abstract form, structure everyday social transactions and our shared world. What is most compelling about psychosocially understanding our society in supply terms is that culturally–not merely economically–it is capitalist. Political scientist Edward Greenberg (1980) observes in this vein that there are many possible socioeconomic configurations. He continues that “unique to capitalism, however, is the universality of the commodity form. A commodity is anything whose essential purpose is to be bought and sold for profit” (p. 73).

With the historical introduction of capitalism, says Greenberg (1980), “… all elements of the social order become marketable things” (p. 75) [Emphasis added]. Capitalism’s particular mode of supplying, then, is commoditization of the needs and desires of everyday life. Commoditization bypasses a mutuality logic of use (e.g., “What is the healthy place within human society for this product or practice?”). Instead, it elevates to predominance an instrumental logic of exchange (e.g., “Whatever gets me to my goals,” such as a goal of selling the product). When we instrumentalize something, such as a person, we make it merely a thing of manipulation toward some outside end.

Capitalism not only makes concrete and abstract things into instrumentalized commodities, it commoditizes amalgams of the two to get more bang for the buck, for concrete things help commoditize abstractions. Antiques, for instance, commoditize peoples’ desires to recapture a past. Similarly, rock ‘n roll recordings, videos, and concerts commoditize both sexual desires and urges to rebellion. Not only does this make our sexual longings prone to be more attached to, say, Madonna or Mick Jagger than to our lover, it also helps render rebelliousness sustaining of the status quo rather than threatening to it.

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About the Author

Gene Riddle

Gene RiddleGene Riddle earned his Ph.D. at The San Francisco School of Psychology and The Professional School of Psychology in 1997. His prior degrees were an MA in Clinical Psychology, before that a BA and an MA in Political Science. Gene Riddle’s doctoral dissertation, from which this essay is drawn, was titled “A Certain Laming of the Personality: The Alienated Dialectics of Subjectivity and Objectivity in Capitalist America.” For the past 15 years, Dr. Riddle has been a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente at its Oakland California medical center, providing new patient triage services at the Adult Psychiatry clinic. He is currently researching a paper, provisionally titled “Lee Oswald’s Life of Unquiet Desperation,” examining the psychological makeup of Lee Harvey Oswald and how that bears on an understanding of the killing of President John Kennedy.

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