On alienation: a missed human opportunity

It was to be a meeting with an old colleague, in old stomping grounds, but it turned into a reflection on the paths by which people become alienated from each other, and even from themselves. Along the way it also turned into a recognition of missed opportunity for something genuinely human, because no meeting ever took place.

The disappeared cafe is out of shot on the left, but the place hasn't changed much.
The disappeared café is out of shot on the left, and the horrid coffee chainstore is on the right, but other than that, the place hasn’t changed much.

I last saw Laurent seven years ago, when we both worked at Elysian Fields.  He had been my divisional chief before he was encouraged to leave the corporation because neither his ambitions nor function were required any longer. I lasted some more months before being deposed by the less noble but more profitable artifice of redundancy.

He moved on to greener pastures, with a smaller company based in West End, which is where I lived at that time, and with which I was in love as the ambient territory of more than a decade’s experiences that included triumphs and desperation enough to make for a melodramatic TV series.

That day, though, Laurent and I were to ‘catch up’ over coffee at a local café.  He chose the place and the time. I confirmed it with him just a couple of hours before the appointed time.

Returning to West End after being absent and not having seen it in years was intriguing.  Would I feel pangs of home-sickness?  No, I didn’t.

Arriving at the crooked crossroads that is Melbourne, Boundary, Browning, and Mollison, I recognised the place as what had been home for many years, but also as a place that had changed in my absence, and perhaps beyond the mere appearance.  Small strands of shop-fronts had begun to creep into Melbourne and Browning Streets, and the facades on Boundary near the crossroads seemed slightly out of place, as if renovated to keep pace with the new.

Looking at the shop-fronts and people passing by, I wondered whether Laurent had changed the same way: he would be the same man, but older and oriented towards new realities I had not seen take shape, and might therefore not understand.

I didn’t wonder about that too long.  The café he had chosen was no longer there, having gone out of business a couple of years earlier, the space now occupied by a Thai restaurant. Laurent always had a slightly wicked sense of humour, and I wondered briefly whether this had been deliberate, and he would hide somewhere to observe my puzzlement or consternation. I wasn’t hiding anything; I waited for some minutes past the appointed time outside the Thai restaurant, smoking a cigarette, and taking in the ambience.

Luckily there was another café right next door to the extinct one, and I supposed that it would be rational and logical for Laurent to look for me there if he had made a mistake about his choice solely because he doesn’t drink coffee.  Making my way there after my cigarette, I was briefly overtaken by other thoughts: how could this chainstore coffee shop get it so wrong with its awful décor, and serve such watery, mediocre coffee in a suburb renowned for a string of superb cafés?  I guess I need not have wondered: this one would have to close its doors soon too if its empty state was an indication of its usual level of patronage.

Sitting there and sipping the brown, flavoured water, my thoughts returned to Laurent.  The last time we were to meet he had stood me up, citing pressure of work.  I recall being disappointed about arranging the meeting at all, and then not organising his affairs enough to keep it.  It had seemed to me, at the time, that maybe he assumed that talking about a meeting was as good as making the actual effort.

This time, though, I had made it plain that I had another engagement within an hour or two of the meeting.  One of those infernal lectures on how to meet ‘user’ needs without the slightest intention of it.

Time wore on.  It looked like I would be stood up again.  I could not help wondering whether the combination of the non-existent coffee shop and Laurent’s absence did not add up to a quite deliberately contemptuous, malicious prank.  It was a perspective on the man I could not quite reconcile with what I knew, or thought I knew about him.  We did not always agree, particularly not on personal choices, but we saw pretty much eye to eye on principles underpinning business process and governance.  Laurent had convictions I did not, and do not share, but unlike so many hypocrites espousing spiritual beliefs, he seemed to operate on the basis of deeply felt ethical principles, and he seemed to act according to how these should govern behavior and integrity.

Sitting there with the time passing, I wondered now whether I had always been wrong, or whether, perhaps, Laurent had simply become another man.

I finished my coffee and noted that it was now 23 minutes after the appointed time.  So I left to prepare for my next engagement, which would not wait on my personal schedule.

I was drawn to speculation on how this missed opportunity might have occurred.  I really did not want to believe of Laurent that he was contemptuously malicious.  But what other reasons could there have been?

This question turned my thoughts to what might be his existential realities.  A responsible career with great demands on his time and attention.  Family responsibilities I didn’t have, and that I might have found crushing.  Who knows what other social responsibilities.  Where did I fit into such a perspective?  Probably not at all, particularly if Laurent had become the one-dimensional man of Marcuse’s eponymous book, tied to organisational routines and logics that left no room for what is human in personal engagements.

It was an oddly bittersweet conception, considering Laurent in this way.  Particularly in light of the impressions refreshed for me by having recently watched again Adam Curtis’s fabulous documentary series, The Trap.  In that series Curtis had strung together the alarming progression in organisational and social thinking that has reduced so many of us to merely robotic components serving organisational machinery.

There were powerful sequences in the first episode, entitled ‘F**k You Buddy’ [not my asterisks], after the game theory scenario devised by the paranoid schizophrenic mathematician, Nobel laureate John Nash’s game theory known as ‘fuck you buddy’, in which mathematical equations proved that any two or more people working together would always benefit the most personally if they betrayed each other.

Nash, who was misrepresented by the nevertheless engaging Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind, did the work on the basis of which contemporary political economics has successfully removed all consideration for genuinely human aspects from politics and economics, instead relying solely on the insane assumption that all human beings act with a ‘perfect’ self-seeking rationality, like a teeming mass of Star Trek Borg, stepping over each others’ corpses when those fallen have become unnecessary for the purposes of the instrumentality, and working only to serve the purpose of perpetuating that instrumentality without ever wondering about or questioning its ends or reason for being.  Curtis shows how this insane assumption (originated by an insane mathematician) has made its way into our Western societies so thoroughly that people found to be, or finding themselves to be, at odds with conforming to such inhuman rôles actually seek psychiatric and medical treatment to fit in with that psychotic model, or are compelled to do so by external enforcers.

It has always struck me how perverse it is to remove all that is human from human interactions in the name of efficiency or effectiveness – two words that must rank very highly in any list of bullshit terminology. How absurd it seems that we are so ready to pervert all that is human in us, reducing our faculties to merely ill-formed skills in transactional processes and purposes, acting even in our private lives merely as organisational cogs. All that incessant fiddling with hand held consumption devices marketed as phones and tablets. Used only to consume, and to excuse our refusal to interact in a human way with people right in front of us.

I thought ruefully about how the vast majority of my fellow students, and some lecturers too, seemed to perfectly reflect that uncritical, inhuman, inhumane model.  Was it that Laurent was one of ‘those’ people now?  ‘Normal’ and righteous in rejecting human imperfections for the certainty of numbers-driven targets, indicators, outcomes, and expectations?  A state of being I would regard rather as alien, and alienating, but not really ‘normal’ except by mass delusion.

In the traditional sense alienation has been conceived of being removed from the source of one’s livelihood by not owning the means of production and being abstracted as a unit of labour.  That concept certainly took many more forms over time, to include alienation from the state, a society, a community.  But my meaning is more closely aligned to that of the existentialist philosophers, who talked about alienation from ‘the other’, which is other people, and even from the ‘self’ by a false consciousness enacted either through the hypocrisy of professing some beliefs and acting contrary to them, or through surrender to someone else’s beliefs in a complete negation of the self.

What is alienated, or removed, in these senses is the primacy of human thought and evaluations, like the ones necessary to interpret or explain to oneself personal circumstances and immediate human interactions, without resort to checklists of assumed ‘normality’, or ‘appropriate’ behaviours, or ideologically derived assumptions. Just human faculty, on-the-spot interpretation and judgements isolated at least temporarily from the threadwork of bias and prejudice that wider experiences bring with them. What is alienated is the idea that subjectivity is not a dirty word, and that objectivity is a silly one, since none of us can attain the state of being completely impartial in the circumstances of our lives, untouched and unformed by our concrete experiences. And yet we talk as if we should try to be more like a machine – objective and impartial – and we pretend this striving has such obvious benefits they need not be stated.

What if Laurent’s exigent circumstances made it perfectly logical to pretend to want to meet without really wanting to?  What if that contradiction between his perception of how he should act – to make the appointment – and how he really felt – that he didn’t want to – resulted in an avoidance reaction whereby he sabotaged the whole thing by picking a non-existent coffee shop and not turning up?

In considering that possibility, I wondered what this meant about Laurent’s conception of me.  Did he think I would not be affected?  That I had not taken the time, and made the effort?  Did he, in fact, assume I, too, would just not turn up?  Would that be unreasonable to assume if avoidance reactions are built into a daily reality?

I still could not quite bring myself to believe such a thing of Laurent.  Instead I was certain that his motivations had to be either a malice I wouldn’t have credited, or a carelessness about who I am, or might be, that I found difficult to imagine.  The latter perspective would require me to consider that Laurent was capable of reducing me in his mind to something less than human: a construct with no subjectivity or capacity to respond or draw conclusions from his actions, or the lack of them.

Two more possibilities entered my mind.  The first concerned some lines of dialogue from the dense and difficult Margarethe von Trotta film Hannah Arendt, and the second was a consideration of the logics of organisational transactions.

In the film, featuring a superbly understated performance by Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt tells her philosophy class that the nature of the evil that was the Nazi concentration camps was to be found in how they made human qualities and attributes superfluous, or supernumerary.  How everything about these camps stripped away the original meanings of the transactions enacted in them.  Work was meaningless.  Routines were meaningless.  And, most importantly, life itself was rendered meaningless.  Not required or respected.  In some senses this was a perfect encapsulation of contemporary organisational logics too, in which human aspects are removed from ‘users’ or consumers, and a solely economic transactional process is superimposed on the remaining empty spaces.  Thus we have the ‘users’ referred to in my classes, who are always assumed to be without human qualities, and motivated solely by numeric calculations of ‘needs’, ‘advantage’ and consumption.  And thus, too, we have Marcuse’s one-dimensional man, no longer concerned about the confounding difficulties of being human, of being confronted with difficult problems of contradictions. Of having to reason about these difficulties, and resolve them by power of intellect and care.  Subsumed instead by organisational logics that remove these difficulties by removing humanity and humanism.

What is left, then, is only an organisational logic.  Laurent’s meeting with me becomes a management process, starting with the calculation of the gain to be had from such a meeting, progressing to prioritising the meeting itself according to that gain (dare I call it ROI?).  Scheduling then becomes subject to any other unforeseen event between making the appointment and meeting it.  For us that was a matter of two or three hours.  For Laurent not to turn up, therefore, might have meant that something with a more immediate ROI required his attention at the appointed time instead.  And who am I to disagree with organisational logic?  Surely I would be reasonable enough to recognise that I was simply less important than some professional exigency?

It seems, though, that I have not learnt to be this obliging, or humble, or inhuman.  Even using the same dehumanising organisational logic, being stood up means that my own effort has been rendered worthless, in the sense that the opportunity cost of being there on time, which is the cost to me of everything else I could have done instead of being there, has been considered by Laurent as less important than his own time, or actually completely worthless and therefore to be trifled with at will, and with no consequence.

As I approached my next destination, and readied myself to deal with a different set of human dynamics and organisational logics, it occurred to me that maybe Laurent and I were estranged from each other now.  Alienated from the bonds we once shared as colleagues, and maybe even friends, by the distance of time and the passage of life-changing events.

That would put my relationship to Laurent in the same category of impersonal feeling I now have for West End.  I no longer feel drawn or attached to it the way I once did.  I don’t disdain or dislike it.  But it is not a focus for me, and I have no reason to be there without some other purpose.

In that vein, Laurent has taken away from me the purpose of just catching up, by devaluing it as meaningless to him.  That implies we will never meet again except by accident or if some other purpose demands it on grounds of some more overriding mutual self-interest.  A perfectly horrid, mechanical one-dimensional conception that makes me wonder whether I actually want to meet Laurent again at all.

It is a missed opportunity for human contact, but perhaps only I can see it as that.  If this were true, it is a sad indication of how alienation works to promote missed human opportunities.

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