Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

We who live in capitalism interchange supplies in two main ways. One readily observable way is directly, as bought-and-sold commodities, including our daily bread, our beach balls, our psychotherapy. All such commodities are subject to instrumentalization by their being obtainable to us near-exclusively through capitalist corporations, specifically via the value-establishing and rationing mechanism provided by our pecuniary means, and via the influences of advertising, marketing, public relations, and the like. A second, more subtle way of supply commoditization is “as-if” commoditization, wherein a sort of bottom line thinking governs nonpecuniary transactions. We commoditize others–and ourselves–when we exchange interpersonal supplies governed by a calculated, end-justifies-the-means logic. Christopher Lasch (1979, 1984) ably shows us how much our society valorizes narcissistic traits like instrumental self-construction of an image to, say, advance in a career or hustle someone into bed.

It is, in sum, systemically rational in capitalist culture to maximize instrumental gain, whether measured as increased sales of a literal commodity or as narcissistic interpersonal gain.

Perhaps it is evident, given my earlier construction of alienation as more-primitive-than-could-be object relations, where this line of thinking points: The logic of commoditization is the primitive logic of the paranoid-schizoid position, the psychosocial working-out of clinical narcissism. For a person functioning in this state, whatever is experienced or defined as objects of the underdeveloped shaky self, or whatever is seen as objective to (i.e., outside) the self, is fundamentally a thing of manipulation. Objects so constructed have little or no experienced life, meaningful existence, or dynamics of their own. Objects-as-only-things seem to be concrete, but “concrete” in this setting mostly means something like “inert” or “solid” in a deadened sense, rather than solidly, reliably established via healthy internalization and psychologically reliable continuity. Indeed, the depth of paranoid-schizoid experience is that nothing subjective or objective can be anything more than shaky and evanescent.

The capitalist commodity, seen in this context, may be understood as a fetishized object, as a pathology of the transitional object processes.  Phyllis  Greenacre (1952). demonstrates that a fetish is in a sense a transitional object process gone sour:

The infantile fetish, although related to the transitional object, is the product of marked disturbances in infancy and is a defensive measure in response to great need stemming from early inadequate object relationships. The fetish is more concretized in its form and use, and tends to be permanently incorporated into the individual’s life, constricting further development of object relationships. (as cited in M. D Faber, 1981, p. 105)

Faber (1981) notes that Greenacre points out how a healthy transitional object process helps promote a developing individual’s sense of protection, of flexibility and adaptiveness, of symbol development, and of human mutuality. The fetish, in contrast, just because it has fixed-seeming “solidity and durability of form,” hampers growth (p. 105). Such a fetishization process, whether enacted vis-à-vis people, things, or ideas, prevails not only in children with problematic development, but also in adults infantilized by commoditization.

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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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