In putting together this issue on Estrangement, we made clear to the authors whom we invited to write for it that the issue was not intended to be a collection of papers reflecting on the Marxist notion of “alienation,” but rather a discussion of the idea of estrangement in the sense of defamiliarization or “making strange” — the distance that in its positive aspect can provide the possibility of new perspectives, but in its negative aspect can cause division between intimates (members of a family or members of a religion) or groups within a single society (neighbors or racial/ethnic groups).
Estrangement has clear political dimensions, which are all too easily seen in the election of Donald Trump in the United States, in the success of Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński and the Freedom and Justice Party in Poland, in the re-election of Viktor Orban in Hungary — and this list easily could be expanded. It is also evident in the recent rise of populism in many countries and the turn away from globalism, witnessed by the British exit from the European Union and the threatened departure of other European members as well. In all these cases it may be possible to see a link between estrangement and disruptive engagement.
Equally interesting and important is the role that estrangement can play as a narrative tool in literature and the arts. In literature perhaps the primary instance is Camus’s The Stranger, which was recently turned on its head in Kamel Daoud’s novel The Merault Investigations.
In art its place has been made central by the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky, who wrote in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique,”
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
Estrangement of course also has had a central role in the philosophical writings of Jean Paul Sartre, and the concept has figured in the literature about of modern art and theater, notably in discussions of Beckett and Brecht, where it is understood as a way to provide a critical distance between the viewer and the viewed, giving rise to new perspectives and critical engagement.
All of these various meanings of estrangement, and others as well, are the subject of the essays in this issue. We hope it will draw our readers’ attention to the ways in which the term has taken on new significance in the all too prevalent turn away from democratic governance seen in many countries, while it continues to provide an interesting way of understanding art and literature and, as you will see, even as a way of looking at the #MeToo movement.