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Alienation how? Emancipation how?

Alienation and emancipation are two concepts that may at first glance be viewed as equal and opposite, like the to and fro of a pendulum. On this view, it is the to that would free the alienated of his/her chains. However, if we look more closely, we note an interplay between the two concepts, which function in ways that are complementary but distinct.
First, alienation is an essentially discursive process that involves placing the other in a position as Other that accordingly takes on an essentializing effect; the alienated is thus diagnosed as such by the discourse of normalization, be it that of the psychiatrist or that of society. The alienated finds him-/herself engaged in a war-of-becoming without end, in thrall to the discourse of alienation imposed upon him/her. (S)he is also “alienated” in that (s)he becomes a stranger to him-/herself, unable to access his/her own emotions or to achieve any mastery over him-/herself or the world around him/her. Mental alienation therefore leads in most cases to institutionalization – institutionalization being considered necessary, or even desirable, as a method of purging the dysfunctional subjectivity depriving the subject of his/her autonomy.
Alienation is a form of radical marginalization, in that it no longer exiles the Other to the margins of the discourse but beyond. In colloquial terms, the alienated first evokes the madman/-woman, the archetypal alienated, and then the subject colonized, the woman subjugated by the patriarchy – in short, anyone destined to be part of a minority cast aside by the language that dominates.
The alienated, isolated as he/she often is, is not pitted against any particular person directly, but rather against a discourse “that alienates”: the relationship is not one of reciprocity, but its opposite – one characterized by an asymmetry of power that crushes the individual, pushing him/her to its periphery.
In these circumstances, what can the role of emancipation be? Just as alienation is a process that is experienced passively, so too does emancipation presuppose the active appropriation of some power, or even – to use the term in a manner more consistent with its etymology – self-liberation from the wardship of some paternal figure.
Also, as a process emancipation is often personal and collective at the same time: by drawing inspiration from collective struggles to achieve emancipation, the individual finds the strength to achieve his/her own emancipation by asserting his/her own subjectivity.
But what is the relationship between emancipation and alienation? Is alienation the logical consequence of emancipation, an answer to it? Does emancipation repair the harm suffered by the alienated, once freed of his/her chains?

The role of literature

Is literature truly capable of depicting alienation, an experience that exists outside the realm of language, given – as Foucault claims – that madness produces nothing of artistic quality? For this reason, is it not possible that its role is to restore the capacity of self-expression and halt the process of alienation? What, then, is the role of the literary aesthetic in exposing and deconstructing mechanisms of alienation? Is it even possible to do both at the same time?
Finally, how can literature be part of an attempt to achieve emancipation on an individual level and on a collective level? Does literature have a role to play politically? Is its role limited to relating the emancipation of an individual or a community, or is it capable of being a catalyst for emancipation?

Historical, cultural and social approaches

With reference to the field of historical, cultural and social studies, this seminar is intended to explore the theme of “alienation/emancipation” by drawing upon a variety of complementary disciplines (social and political history; history of ideas; sociology; history of psychiatry; history of women; and so on) in relation to the broader geographic area of the English-speaking world. Given its title, “Alienation/Emancipation”, this seminar is a natural invitation to deal with issues such as oppression; the struggle to take back lost freedoms or to achieve a new independence; civil-rights and abolition movements; power struggles; and the loss and (re)construction of both individual and collective identity.

Linguistic approaches

In her book The Language War, linguist Robin Lakoff expresses surprise at the fact that “[l]anguage is just air after all – it is not a gun, it has no power of its own. Yet it changes reality. How is air transmuted into concrete reality – how does language become action?”((Robin Lakoff, The Language War, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000, p. 21.)) The fight for the power inhering to words is at the heart of the theme of this seminar. Is alienation indissociable from the discourse that produces it, what forms does this discourse take, how does it manifest itself conceptually, and who creates it? Does emancipation consist in the appropriation of the power of words, as a preamble to the advent of a new discourse and, therefore, to a reconceptualization of the alienated as emancipated? Is such a reconceptualization truly possible? Is the newly emancipated discourse capable in the long term of fully divesting itself of the discourse that normalizes? This seminar will be an opportunity to discuss the concepts of linguistic taboo, dysphemism, euphemism, and neologism underlying discourses of alienation and emancipation, whether relating to disability (mental, physical, and so on); women; ethnic and sexual minorities; the elderly; the poor; or any other minority.