A is for ALIENATION — JENS HOFFMANN — 2018
This text was written for the book ABC B.A. published in 2018 by Dent-de-Leone and distributed by Les presses du réel. This monograph is composed of a collection of texts and critical essays in the form of a abc-book. Based on key words, twelve art critics, curators or writers wrote a text commenting on Boris Achour’s work. The book also includes an iconographic collection offering an overview of the artist’s work.
A is for Alienation
I would argue that Karl Marx’s classical economic theory of alienation—the realization that one is part of a particular class that is being exploited, and the consequent estrangement from the hierarchies of capitalism—has played into numerous literary cases of another kind of alienation—the social sort—that feeling of inadequacy when confronted with the surrounding, and often hostile world. Franz Kafka produced perhaps the most iconic ruminations on meaninglessness, isolation, loneliness, insufficiency, and rejection; he captured like no other writer the condition of being disintegrated in society. And, interestingly, work is consistently part of the picture. Metamorphosis (1915) is the story of a traveling salesman who wakes one morning as a giant insect and becomes a terrible burden on his family. A Hunger Artist (1922) tells of a man who has turned starvation into a performance for money at circuses and fun fairs (these were common in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries), who finally grows too thin to live and dies after confessing that all he ever wanted was to belong in society.
Like many of his characters, Kafka was an outcast himself. He hated his desk job at an insurance company, which he called “bread work,” and all its bureaucracy. His family offered little refuge or security. Born a German-speaking Jew in Prague during the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th century, he was also a social outcast—a victim of the friction between Czechs and Germans, non-Jews and Jews, and never fully assimilated into the culture of the country where he lived.
Another literary character iconic for his alienation is Herman Melville’s Bartleby from Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), an office clerk who gradually refuses to execute the tasks assigned to him (delivering the classic line “I would prefer not to”). He does less and less until one day he stops working completely, but crucially never leaves the office, and passes his days and nights staring at the brick wall opposite his desk. Eventually he is removed by the police and dies of starvation in prison, where he “prefers” not to eat.
In these and many other stories, in the face of alienation from others (uncaring family members, annoyed coworkers, jeering spectators) passivity becomes a weapon, a rebellion, or at least a kind of rejection of social norms (even perhaps a cry for help?). But of course it never works; the spiral only leads deeper into itself. The characters are definitely pathetic, yes, but we identify with them because being segregated from one’s community is something many of us experience at one point or another. The reason alienation is such rich fodder for stories is because it triggers us to address existential questions, and lays bare the absurdities of life.
Could we say that much great art, in whatever medium, be it books, paintings, films, or music, is the result of alienation? A discomfort with norms, rules, and regulations that push artists to the fringes of our society, with its expectations of conformity and standardization? Speaking from the edge, artists ask: What is a rational response to an irrational universe?