The words ‘alien’ or ‘unalienable’ – as in, respectively, Alien: Resurrection (1997) or “the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (1776)- both stem from the Latin word ‘alius’, which roughly translates to the English word ‘other’. While one of these works of art hit the box office at a whopping $161.4million USD and the other was stolen in National Treasure (2004) to the tune of $347.5million USD, they both deal in something called otherness. For something to be unalienable then, is for it to be unable to be casted into this otherness. To be unalienable means to be unable to be given away, least of all taken. Thus, very few things fall under our collective purview of what is truly unalienable. Most things can be stripped into otherness, at the very least at our own volition.
Other things are seemingly condemned to otherness. My desk and I, for example. Despite our close physical proximity or our organized design or whatever it may be, we are locked in some degree of perpetual otherness. This is alienation, and it comes in degrees. In a sense, we are all alienated from one another to the extent that we can’t fully take on one another’s subjective experiences. But surely we are less alienated from one another than we are from, say, the alien from Alien. We are comparatively less alienated in our relationship to purely material objects. Clothes, bikes, windows, pavement, phones. Our intuition seems to be that there is an inherent ‘otherness’ between us and these things.
Possibly the most popular explanation for this alienation is that we ourselves are not purely physical beings (or at least don’t feel like purely physical beings), and thus our alienation is rooted in our lack of material being in the face of material objects. Call it a soul, a mind, or whatever; the idea is that there is some part of us (or perhaps, all of us) that exists immaterially. It has no location or physical composition. It is, to put it vaguely, on a higher plane. Surely, this immaterial identity of ours can interact with the material world. Throughout history we have seen immaterial ideas shape material actions that change the physical world. One’s belief in freedom leads them to violently revolt. One’s desire for prosperity leads them to produce something to be sold at a profit. This is all in the ordinary.
Perhaps, though, the alienation we subject ourselves to can be inherently bad for us. Bad in-and-of-itself. We are jaded by the otherness we experience constantly with the physical world. Our immaterial minds seek refuge from constant alienation, so we look to spiritual, religious, immaterial experiences. We interact with each other- we cook food, hang out, tell stories, fall in love, etc.- because there is a lesser degree of alienation in the relationship between our immaterial identities. We have pets because we can identify a semblance of immaterial being in them, too. We feel comfort in these situations- sometimes even the illusion that there is no otherness at all.
The truth of the matter is that our culture is entrenched in materialism. Our collective mindset is highly focused on material, as a coping mechanism, as a status symbol, as a lifestyle. This materialism is not solely focused on consumption, though, as production plays a huge role in how we interact with the material world as well. We produce nearly everything we consume, and this production inevitably comes at the price of alienation between the immaterial producer and the material product. This creates a feeling of otherness in all forms of production. There is widespread alienation that takes place each and every day among laborers. Literal manufacturers are not the only workers who fall under this purview though; salespeople, service workers, delivery people and others also typically have a clear relationship with some physical product, be it shoes, food, drugs or software. People enjoy or loathe their job to different degrees, but otherness always sits at the core of the relationship between workers and their fruits in our communities.
Not all otherness is created equal. Again, alienation comes in degrees. This is because we can have immaterial ideas- affections- about and for some of the products we produce, specifically those that derive from passion or are to be utilized by ourselves or those close to us. I’ve never built a home, but I can imagine that if I built my home, I would have a stronger affection for it. I might have a unique appreciation for the wood I used, for the bricks I placed for my chimney, or for the color I chose to paint the walls. If I built my guitar, I might have a greater appreciation for it. The technology, art and shape of the instrument might feel more personal to me and my immaterial self. My alienation would be mitigated by the projection of my own immaterial ideas of affection about my guitar as a product of my own labor, and as product that I myself experience utility in. Our otherness would be diminished at all stages of production and consumption. This is, of course, not to say that you can’t have an emotional connection to materials you didn’t produce, or can’t produce things yourself that you evidently have no immaterial connection with. I am speaking about these things in the aggregate.
It has been said, by authors like Steven Pinker, that human nature itself doesn’t exist, and is instead actively created by our culture and experiences. While I agree that much our nature is malleable and perhaps botched altogether, what I am writing about is not concerned with human nature outside of the premise that humans are immaterial beings or at least feel immaterial (I don’t know anybody who feels like they are one in the same with a computer). Alienation is not a matter of human nature. The tension of otherness is not a matter of whether or not humans are naturally malicious or curious or whatever. It is a metaphysical question. In my view, it is inevitable. Our otherness from the world we are surrounded by, our alienation, is inalienable itself. But we can find ways to make more meaningful relationships with our physical world.
At the end of the day, this all teeters on economics. I wouldn’t consider myself a Marxist, at least in the traditional sense, and to be honest, I don’t see these issues as necessarily economic at the forefront. To me, I look around and feel despair at how we have maximized alienation and stifled other forms of creativity, many times only to produce things that further alienate us. I often think about all of my would-be favorite songs that I’ll never hear, in-part because they’ve never been made, because the person who wrote the song didn’t have the means or the time or the energy to actually record/produce the track. Maybe their relationship with creation was so tainted by the alienation they’ve felt at work that the whole process just seemed discouraging in general. Maybe they simply couldn’t save the money or find the time to make the things they had the ability to make. You can ask the same question about movies, books, clothes, business ideas, whatever.
To me, it has always felt like our hands were the most symbolic link between our immaterial selves and our material world. Our ideas/creativity/desires are brought into the physical world through our hands. More often, though, the ideas/creativity/desires of others are brought into the world through our hands, and often this process happens not out of personal interest or the anticipation of actually using the products we create/sell/serve (or even having people we know use the products we create/sell/serve), but instead purely out of a need to ultimately provide for oneself. All of our annual GDP of $20 trillion USD – even if AI generates a lot of that income, the design and original manufacturing stems from our hands. Hands are empowering to me. They represent the power of workers and people more generally; the power to type these words, the power to build a home, the power to play an instrument, the power to defend yourself, the power to provide comfort. Regardless of how dispensable our structures are designed to make you feel, how disempowered it is in their interest to make you feel, or how small and insignificant your ideas or worth will be spun to you, your hands will always represent what you are actually capable of, which is a lot more than a productivity-obsessed society would like you to believe. The hardest part is to act in a way that is becoming of our true worth, because it requires a look outside of what is normally expected of the working class.