This summer, I am working on a research project focused on theories of alienation, particularly those that explore the relational aspects of social alienation. Tapping this theoretical vein offers me new language and critical insight into the fractured, abject spaces I find myself inhabiting when immersed in the comics I gravitate toward, particularly those of David Mazzucchelli, Chris Ware, Seth, Daniel Clowes, and Luke Pearson. In this blog post, I will sketch out just a few of the theories I’m working with, and ask that you remember, particularly, the depiction of Jordan Wellington Lint (Rusty Brown’s tormentor in earlier Acme Library volumes) from birth through death in Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library #20 (Lint) (Drawn and Quarterly, 2010) since I have only limited space here to tease out a few connections between this comic and the germane theories. Though he mainly frames the narrative through Jordan Lint’s myopic and self-serving viewpoint, Ware nevertheless provides us with enough visual and verbal detail (and you do have to work hard to hear and see the small chunks of more objective visual and verbal content) to slowly piece together the trajectory of an alienated life lived badly and punctuated by rare, brief bouts of self-awareness and remorse. If you haven’t read Acme Library #20, substitute Clowes’ Wilson (Wilson) or Enid and Becky (Ghost World), Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (Asterios Polyp) or your favorite misunderstood/reclusive/embittered/once-bitten-thrice-shy comic character, though Jordan Lint is unmatched in his capacity for self-justification and self-gratification in the midst of a steady series of passive and active infractions against others.
Alienation theory is a broad field, and allows those of us who are interdisciplinary by inclination to recognize the layered and multiple sources of subjective perceptions of disconnect from others and even from ourselves. These approaches include philosophical explorations of self and other, either existential or rooted in theories of mind that explore the cognitive source of emotions like (social) disgust and shame. In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotion (Cambridge UP, 2001), for example, Martha Nussbaum suggests that disgust and shame are rooted in all things “animal,” everything, in short, that reminds us of our mortal—decaying, exuding, dying—selves: “With disgust as with primitive shame, our ambivalence about our bodily makeup, its helplessness and its connection to mortality and decay, color the emotions of the child’s developing social life, sowing the seeds of some tenacious moral and social problems.” (206) Recall 2 year old Jordan’s classic fecal/penile pleasure early in Lint, and the mother’s horrified “No, Jordan!” But also recall a slightly older Lint (age 10) reaching up and missing a catch, which then prompts him to yell an invective at his innocent team-mate. This act of cursing others because one is in pain will recur frequently and Lint finds himself (again, as he often will) rebuked by another (in this case, the school headmaster) for his social transgression. Though certainly comparable to psychological theories of projection and the return of the repressed, philosophical considerations of alienation can stress the thought processes and language acts that scaffold and construct notions of self/other, me/world, inside/outside.
Approaching alienation psychoanalytically, we begin to move into examining the causes and effects of more tangible expressions of behavior, from antisocial acts and affects (including substance abuse, rage, lack of empathy/numbing, misogyny and abuse) to active withdrawal from others to reduce social pain (recently given the label hikikomori by Japanese psychiatrist, Saito Tamaki, who suggests that there are now nearly a million Japanese people—usually young (20’s, 30’s), usually male—living as “shut-ins” in their parental homes, attending neither school nor work, and seeing no one outside their immediate family (and sometimes not even them, preferring instead to have their meals left at the bedroom door). (Hikikomori: Adolescence without End, trans. Jeffrey Angles, Minnesota UP, 2013). The manga series, Welcome to the NHK, is one comic response to this growing social problem in Japan, but I agree with Tamaki that this is not a uniquely Japanese problem and that we can also find American hikikomori in life and in our graphic novels. Lint’s troubles with the world—his inability to inhibit impulses or sacrifice self—repeatedly jeopardize and then sever his relationships with others—leaving him stranded, indignant, and self-medicating (chiefly via masturbation, alcohol, and risk) despite an unusually high number of opportunities to “try again” (new friends, new girlfriends, new wives, new children, new financial schemes). Though Lint does not shut himself away in a room, he certainly does so figuratively, carving out an inviolable bubble of personal space that casts him as eternal victim, not victimizer. Brilliantly, Ware offers us glimpses of the wreckage Lint leaves behind: the hurt expressions of women unseen or unprocessed by the titular character, the haunted face of the father of a friend killed through Lint’s recklessness, references to bilked share-holders of the now-ruined family company, a review of his estranged son’s memoir of abuse at his hand (Lint will later sue his son for defamation).
Julia Kristeva, who is as much philosopher as psychoanalyst, shares Nussbaum’s interest in how we arrive at conceptions of self and other, but cares most about how these concepts shape behavior. Taking on the concept of the “foreigner” in Strangers to Ourselves (trans. Leon Roudiez, Columbia UP, 1991), Kristeva seems to suggest that we cannot accept the strangeness of others until we accept the strangeness of ourselves. Jordan Lint renounces his name–“Don’t call me Jordan!”– after the death of his mother when he is very young, adopting “Jason” instead (he’ll return to Jordan in his mid-twenties). Channeling both the offhanded racism of his father and stepmother (“daddy sometime talk about black people. he say bad black people.”[n.p.] “Well I’d prefer not to hire a negro, since you ask” [n.p.]), as well as his father’s casual subordination of women, Jordan/Jason also adds homophobia, verbal denigration of sundry others, callousness, and possibly—this is how I read a certain set of panels– child sexual abuse (of his stepdaughter). Ware shows us a nested set of cycles of abuse: from father to son, victim to victimizer; precisely after Jordan makes connections to the pain of others (remembering his own similar pains) opening up the possibility of empathy, he closes the channel down expeditiously and attacks whoever is nearest. For Kristeva, this brings about the supreme social failure: not recognizing and tolerating one’s own unknowable and strange self means others remain foreign, alien, some more so than others. “Uncanny, foreignness is within us: we are our own foreigners, we are divided….The foreign is within me, hence we are all foreigners.” (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 181-182) The bully that Jordan Lint becomes grows in no small part from the accretion of a hundred different failures of rapprochement by himself, his father before him, and so on…
Finally, it is worth a brief detour into the work of social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who reminds us that there are inherent problems in conceptualizing alienation as a simple mismatch or failed integration of self and world (whether world is constituted as environment, workplace, social milieu, or as particular institutions like family, school, romance). Sociologists and alienation theorists, at least since Melvin Seeman (1959) defined alienation as having five key components: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement (qtd. in the Introduction to Felix Geyer, Alienation, Ethnicity and Postmodernism, Greenwood Press, 1996), have historically relied upon a fairly fixed and unified sense of self (and world, for that matter) when they discuss the disjuncts between individuals and their environment(s). From a classic Marxist perspective, for example, alienation occurs when a person’s core self (their self-concept, essential nature, consciousness) is denied, obliterated by profit-driven labor structures: “… ‘estrangement’ from a human being’s essential nature as a result of a cruel set of industrial capitalist demands” (Irving Horowitz, “The Strange Case of Alienation: How a Concept is Transformed without Permission of its Founders,” in Geyer, 18). Kenneth Gergen, however, recognizes what cultural critics also regularly argue: that the self itself is not unified, nor is there a single essential nature of a person which is simply in harmony or at odds with the world out there. If human nature is fragmented, shifting, phasal, and multiple, and we can say the same for the institutions, systems, world and other people encountered by individuals, then it makes more sense, argues Gergen, to view alienation relationally:
…[I]n much constructionist writing there simply is no sense of self
outside the cultural matrix. That we identify single selves at all—that we
attribute to them emotions, intention, logical thought and the like—is entirely a
byproduct of cultural relations….All that was natural and autonomous from the
alienationist’s standpoint, is now cultural and relational. (Gergen in Geyer, 121)
Viewing Jordan Lint’s alienation relationally moves us profitably away from essentializing statements (for example, that he is simply a sociopath, which I’ve avoided saying), and underscores the complexity of Ware’s depiction of the simultaneity of Lint’s victim and victimizer states, of his vulnerable moments alongside his self-destructive and antisocial acts. From here, we can move into a dynamic reading of the interplay of alienating forces and relationships in Ware’s comic, but this I’ll save for the larger project from which these preliminary notes emerge.