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Inscribed in the opposition between the Same and the Other, alienation describes the condition of the subject who no longer recognizes himself, or rather can only recognize himself via the Other.

The philosophical background of this concept derives from Hegel and then Marx.

Classical psychiatry used the term to classify any mental illness in which the subject no longer knew who he was.

Thanks to Jacques Lacan's study of Hegel's master/slave dialectic, the term no longer refers only to mental alienation, but retains the meaning it has in philosophy.

For Lacan, who followed Hegel on this point, human desire is constituted by mediation:

"Man's desire finds its meaning in the other's desire, not so much because the other holds the keys to the desired object, but because his first objective is to be recognized by the other" (Lacan, p. 58).

Specifically, the objective is to be recognized by the Other as a desiring subject, because the first desire is to have one's desire recognized.

The conclusion is Lacan's well-known formula:

"Man's desire is the desire of the Other," which doesn't mean that one desires another as object, but that one desires another desire, and wants to have one's own desire recognized by the Other.

This is an echo of Hegel's master/slave dialectic (a struggle for pure prestige) where each consciousness wants to be recognized by the Other without recognizing it in turn ("each consciousness seeks the death of the other").

In this fight to the death, the one who accepts death in order to win becomes the Master; the other will become the slave.

But the Master is taken in a trap, for he owes his status to the recognition of a slave-consciousness.

The slave, however, will be liberated by the Master as his work extracts from things the consciousness of self that was lost in the struggle.

The slave will end up, in the Marxist perspective, transforming the world in such a way that there is no place for the Master.

Thus the theme of alienation in Lacan refers to what is called a forced choice, or vel, which is the Latin word expressing an alternative where it is impossible to maintain two terms at once.

The vel is alienating in that it gives a false choice, a forced choice ("your money or your life," "me or you").

The Master's freedom, which must pass through death to attain consciousness of self, is no freedom.

Lacan derived several consequences from this structure of alternative, particularly in his critique of the Cartesian cogito, by indicating that thought and being cannot coincide.

Thus, "I am where I do not think" and "it thinks there where I am not."

Piera Aulagnier also took up the notion of alienation, but even though she borrowed from Lacan the relation of desire to the Other, her view more closely approached Freud's thinking about collective hypnosis and its relation to the ego ideal.

However, she worked in an entirely different context, refusing to make alienation one of the givens of human existence, but instead seeing it as one of the ways the psyche attempts to resolve conflict.

First, she defined the notion of alienation by its goal, which is "to strive for a non-conflictual state, to abolish all causes of conflict between the identifying subject and the object of identification, between the I and its ideals" (Aulagnier, 1979).

Thus she connects the notion to the aims of Thanatos, as a "desire for non-desire" and it can then be used in fields as diverse as collective psychology, passionate love, gambling, and drug addiction.

Nevertheless, Piera Aulagnier insists that alienation rests on an encounter between the desire for self-alienation, on the one hand, and the desire to alienate, on the other.

The process of alienation seeks to erase the tension arising from this difference, whether it involves a subject that seeks to identify himself with the object identified, or a subject that wants to bring together the self image that comes back to him from others and the others themselves.

Thus alienation appears to be a pathological modality, like neurosis or psychosis, that attempts to regulate the conflict between identifying subject and the object identified.

Whereas the neurotic differentiates between his self and its idealization and the psychotic posits the latter as realized in a delusion, the alienated subject idealizes an other who provides him with certainty.

Unable to make these ideals a spur to progress, alienation produces a short circuit through the mediation of an idealized force.

Alienation becomes even more effective when the alienated subject misapprehends "the accident occurring in his or her thought" (Aulagnier, 1979).

It is as though this subject, once a prisoner, no longer has the objectivity needed to judge the situation.

In cases where a group feels alienated, not only is a group of subjects oppressed by a group of masters, but oppression infiltrates all relationships within the group.

"Thus whatever the position one may occupy at the moment, every subject is both a victim and a potential murderer, given that one could always find oneself in the opposite position a moment later" (Aulagnier, 1979).

If Jacques Lacan is indebted to Hegel, Piera Aulagnier leans on Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, both of whom revisit the historical experiences that have left their mark on the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the gulag.

But how does it happen that the subject chooses one outcome of alienation, rather than another?

Piera Aulagnier would start from the metapsychological perspective on the conflict between the identifying subject and the object identified.

This conflict is inscribed at the heart of a pathological relation to the ideal ego and to the ideal agencies in general.

Alienation is characterized (as is psychosis, but in a different way) by an asymmetry between the I and its object, with no reciprocity between what the one recognizes and what the other recognizes.

Thus a dominant pole is created (passionate investment in an object, the God-drug, Chance) by means of which the subject's response will be alienated from the object that is seen as invulnerable; conversely the psychotic, who also recognizes the asymmetry in the relation, is going to try to flee from it and create outside of it a delusional object of identification that others refuse to recognize.

The notion of alienation as Piera Aulagnier conceives of it allowed for a reconsideration the nosographical categories.

She particularly opened up a domain for renewed investigations on the question of addictions and on the perversions.

See Also


  1. Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les destins du plaisir: aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
  2. Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. InÉcrits: a selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1953)
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