Existence without Essence

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

sartre-endIn October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

responseIn modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond the base of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

***

Estranged Labor by a young Karl Marx discusses alienation as a concept. It is part of a greater collection called Economic Manuscripts of 1844. 

3 comments
  1. Bravo! I intend to reblog this, unless you have any objection. I will surely come back to this again and again. I must say, though, that I doubt that the mere existence of a capitalist framework utterly squashes any opportunity for authentic personhood. I must see if I can develop this idea.

    • Anton said:

      Thank you! I appreciate it. If you want to write a rebuttal or a follow-up, I would definitely enjoy reading that.

  2. Reblogged this on Samantha Sprole and commented:
    What follows is a brilliantly executed guest post by The Popular Front. To cultivate a greater understanding of the philosophy of alienation from modern thinkers, you might start by checking out Marx, Sartre, and Baudrillard. This blog asks: do you think the presence of capitalism in parts of our lives prevents us from creating a truly authentic, autonomous identity?

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