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Alienation as Disembodiment: considerations on Edward Curtin’s Disembodied Americans and the Crucifixion of the World. 

I am not writing to criticize Curtin’s piece because to my mind there is nothing to criticize; it is a well written, interesting and insightful piece.  I am only writing to address his primary question which, as I see it, is why are so many middle class Americans indifferent to their government’s savage slaughter of human being overseas?  There is a concomitant question which exists within his question as its logical otherness, and that is why are so many middle class Americans indifferent to the slower and more measured savage slaughter of their fellow Americans by the police, by poverty, by drugs, by tainted food, poor housing and random violence; by the exhaustion of never ending and degrading labor for low wages, by the withholding of free and adequate health care, etc, etc, etc.

American Capitalism is, as it stands today, a crystal pure capitalism, and as such, has only one value, one goal and one need which is profit. The very idea that one could have political equality without economic reality, in itself completely illogical and contradictory, was destroyedby the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision allowing unlimited corporate and union spending on political issues, All pretenses America might have once held forth regarding democracy, equality and justice in its own country have been revealed to be just that: pretenses.  No one stops for a moment to consider that the current “protector” of the American working class is an unmitigated Capitalist.   So too, any pretenses America might have held forth regarding its foreign policy have likewise been liquidated as the Wolfowitz Doctrine became the foreign policy reality of the Bush administration and every administration since then.

Of course, Curtin’s question is purely rhetorical.  His answer is that capitalist society has produced people who are disembodied, alienated from their own bodies and so necessarily from the bodies of others.  They are disembodied in a way that contradicts their humanity and their real existence as human beings. As Curtin expresses it to us so powerfully and poetically “Once the human body becomes an object of narcissistic preoccupation –its maintenance, presentation, coddling, etc. – it has become an instrument to be used, as do other people.  The body remains but the human disappears, and the remaining “instrumental” body is “disembodied.”).  Beautiful, just beautiful.

I cut my Marxist teeth on BertellOllman’sAlienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. In its early chapters Ollman moves slowly, carefully, precisely, explaining to us that Marx’s subject matter is social relations of production, that he views these social relations dialectically, as the Hegelian whole in which each part is mutually defining and mutually  determining.  This whole Marx will eventually call the “mode of production” which in its entirety encompasses man’s relationship to man and man’s relationship to nature.   For Marx, the starting point for the revolution of modes of production, are human needs the fulfillment of which reside outside of human beings, in nature (the Hegelian Otherness). Man must “go over” into nature, appropriate it, in order to fulfill his needs.   In the process of appropriating nature man changes both nature and himself:  he develops new powers, new and more effective ways of appropriating nature (forces of production), as well as new wants and needs that demand fulfillment.  This is the process in and through which human beings, their bodies and minds, their human powers (think technology), and their social relations evolve

In class societies, the appropriation of nature through the employment of the forces of production is mediated by the ownership of both natural resources and the forces of production themselves.   Thus, those who own the means and forces of production exert control over all those who are actively engaged in the appropriation of nature through the actual employment and of the forces of production. The owners of the forces of production thus control the fulfillment of the needs of the vast masses who employ the forces of product to satisfy not human needs but private profits.  Private ownership of the means and forces of production is thus the first and primary alienation of man from both nature and himself.  As Marx puts it ’man has no human needs’ as money is the only ‘true need’ produced in Capitalism.  Thus, as Ollman concludes, “People no longer feel drives to see, hear, love and think, but only to have, to own what is seen, heard, loved and thought about.  Ownership, with all it entails in the way of greed, status, rights to use and abuse, has become the only adequate expression of man’s powers at this stage in their development.” (94)

In Part III of the book, Ollman elucidates the exact nature of human alienation under capitalism elucidating howman is alienated from his species nature, from his labor and the products of his labor, from his fellow human beings.  Curtin, adds to this, that man eventually and of necessity becomes alienated from his own body.  What Curtin calls disembodiment is but a form of what Marx and Ollman regard as “abstraction.”

“What is left of the individual after all these cleavages have occurred is a mere rump, a lowest common denominator attained by lopping off all those qualities on which is based his claim to recognition as a man.” (134)  Thus denuded, the alienated person has become an ‘abstraction’” isolated from the social whole.  So it is that individuals under capitalism are rendered self alienated to the point of what Curtin calls “disembodiment”.  And so it is as monsterously disembodied, undifferentiated abstractions that they confront the world.  So, why do people have no feeling for the suffering of others,  why do they not rise up and demand an end to capitalist man’s inhumanity to man?, The answer can only be because capitalism has rendered them alienated abstractions.

Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, BertellOllman, Cambridge at the University Press, 1971.

BertellOllman is a Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University.

Long ago and far away, Mary Metzger was his student.

Mary Metzger is a New Yorker living in Moscow

 

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