Domenach versus Alienation



“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 the 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. This Christian, who naturally relies on Stalinist orthodoxy or the cybernetized “Marxism” of a Châtelet (acknowledging them all the more readily as Marxist since his very existence as a “leftist thinker<” depends on such Marxism), removes his mask after enumerating a few items found in Châtelet, carefully selected for their incoherence, when he insinuates: “All these ‘alienations’ appear to emerge from a general human condition.” Then, at the end of his discourse, he invites everyone to admit their “original alienation” and thus their Creator. In exchange, he offers this concession to the economistic and mechanistic Marxism that all the modern priests are in the process of accepting: 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, of 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. That is why this Christian believes that “the moment has come” to resume his original role (“It must be done, such is the will of the Lord”) within the new decor of the era.

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. What all these vocabulary challengers lack is dialectics. In a recent Le Monde column Robert Le Bidois, who is usually less puristic, denounces all uses of the phrase “at the level of.” Despite the many examples he gives of inept uses of that phrase, it should be understood that a society that is characterized by economic gradations and administrative hierarchies in all sectors of life and that is also familiar with the psychoanalytical unconscious (even if it represses a coherent use of such information) — it must be understood that such a society’s language will not restrict its use of the concept of “level” to the literal spatial sense or to the figurative phrase “to be at the level of his task.”

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 of no importance that a priest at the pulpit renounces the use of a concept that he would in any case never 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.



“Domenach contre l’aliénation” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #10 (Paris, March 1966). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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