Here’s the problem I have with science fiction : Its practitioners pretend to represent the concept of the alien when they know they can’t. The fact of the matter is, no matter how brilliant or creative, a human mind simply can’t produce anything that’s separate from an already existing object or idea in our experience. Try it. Describe a purely alien being. Any attempt is immediately confronted with concepts—shape, size, color, density, personal expression, speech, and locomotion—versions of which are all firmly rooted in your individual experience and, to that extent, not alien.
The above relies on one version of alien, and so it is less an in-depth critique of sci-fi than an illustration of how the term alien is almost biblically interpretive. The ambiguity surrounding its usage would be a model example for a joyous meditation on the glorious shagginess of the English language. However, the cultural detritus attached to it contains too many profoundly disturbing after effects for a purely academic treatment.
In our cultural present, the negative connotations of alien carry far more gravity than the positive. It has historically been used as an umbrella term for those who are perceived as pejoratively other in regards to their nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else outside of an arbitrarily designated “normal.” This perception of otherness does not remain benignly taxonomic—simply this or other than this. In this context, alien becomes active—alienation—and that’s where things get bloody.
There is a streak of naïve idealism in me that hopes that tackling the alien/alienation problem is simple linguistics, and proposes we embrace the complexity of the word alien to find the beauty in its ability to describe the indescribable. But, of course, this would just be mental exercise as escapism. The weight and history of our society’s use of the word, and the ubiquity of everyone’s individual experience of alienation, is too much. As it is, the space here is embarrassingly limited.
Alienation, and how we experience it on the personal and global level, is enormously complex. Much like trying to pin down the word alien to just a handful of possible definitions, describing the active form would have to take into account every person’s individual emotional history to even approach an exhaustive meaning. In order to bring alienation within the confined space of how it is used (primarily) in this issue, I will split it into two categories : existential and institutional.
Existential alienation is one of the less joyous, more consistent, parts of being human. We all encounter a feeling of not belonging at one time or another. And, it feels bad. Think of some relatively benign examples, such as being left out of a game in school or being ignored by someone you care about. These relatively meaningless instances are usually counterbalanced by experiences of acceptance, but, to me at least, the memory of not belonging has staying power in our psyches and shouldn’t be discounted for its smallness.
Institutional alienation is very different. It’s usually a targeted social act either from a large organizational body or by a single individual working in the name of a dogma or perceived sense of right, which may be manifest explicitly or implicitly, stemming from a hate born of fear. Few of us may have never experienced this feeling at one level or another, and it would take a concerted effort to deny the dominance of institutional alienation in our present global conversation. Therefore, I feel that no specific example is necessary. We all have our own experiences and knowledge and can meditate on them separately.
This distinction between existential and institutional alienation may be about the clearest approach to alien and alienation contained in this issue, although each article inside deals with one or the other—or both. Exclusion is everywhere and is felt by everyone in a different way. And, to only focus our attention on a single experience with either form of alienation is, certainly, to take agency out of the hands of others with a different viewpoint ; claiming a single source of alienation flattens the individual experience and no one is flat.
I’m the type of person that is annoying in his need to fix things and so, even armed with the knowledge that I am both lacking in ability and experience to tackle the idea of the alien and alienation, my inner idealist is trying to wrap up things in an inspirational bow, to approximate some sort of rallying cry in order to inspire us to find ways to combat alienation, both personal and institutional. I came up short. Again, I bang my head against a wall, trying to create something out of nothing, like inventing a creature of science fiction.
So, instead of trying to present global answers from a singular (and admittedly sheltered) point of view, I will offer the one thing I personally know about the alien. For each moment I exist, another experience (person, idea, thing) ceases to be unknown to me. I learn a little, experience a little, and gather what was previously alien into an empirical process that will contextualize and fold it into my ever-expanding world, making its otherness an exciting newness, which then reveals more alien ideas/people/objects for me to confront. This process is exhilarating, or scary, or frustrating, or angering. I admit that there are things I will continue to not understand, people that will seem strange, ideas that, with my limited scope, may feel disturbing or distasteful. All I can do is put a little faith in my ability to be patient and appreciate what I don’t understand brings to the world around me.
With that faith, and with the understanding that our personal experiences of alienation are felt, in a version specific to them, by everyone, I think we can find some empathy. And, empathy—and the communication it usually opens—provides some hope.
I’m not naïve. What’s suggested above does little to end racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, or any of other deeply engrained institutional hatred that breeds alienation. And, being open to adding new experience to your life does not mean you will never alienate or feel alienated. It does, however, create a base from which to stand up to alienation around you and even to confront your own fears of what is different.
In this issue, I have suspended most of our recurring features in order to make room for stories of the alien and of alienation. There are stories here of great fragility and loss that, as they should, sit alongside words of anger and protest. Some of the writing has to do specifically with music, some does not. Each person has a different way of confronting the idea of alien or sharing their feelings of alienation. All of them belong here. All of us belong here.