It is not uncommon for cultural and economic theories to be translated and applied to literary texts in order to unveil new insights into a particular piece of writing. Alienation, a term that was once very relevant in social and political discussions, is one such example: it was applied to the writings of Franz Kafka, where it functions perfectly as a commentary on both the cultural and the economic aspects of the author's stories. Such phenomena are often limited in their use and are applied to texts that are already on a canonical pedestal, further solidifying their importance and relevance. However, this article will discuss how alienation can be used to analyze an aspect of a quintessential work of popular culture in order to showcase how important social messages are delivered through popular media. Although it is clear that most Netflix series are nowhere near in quality to Kafka’s writing, their wide-spread popularity might mean that their treatment of social problems is, at the very least, equally important as Kafka’s because of their unparalleled reach and their innate ease of consumption.
Alienation as a term is rather broad and various meanings were attributed to it over time. For example, it is often seen as the backbone of Marxist thought, where it refers to "the lack of identification of people with their working lives—their alienation as workers” (Gilabert, 2020, p. 52). It is from these roots that alienation as a concept underwent criticism. An underlying belief in the shared truth of humanity is necessary in order to provide a structure against which one could become alienated: "the term suggests a teleological and eschatological grand 'meta-narrative' of fall and redemption, of the loss and hope for the restoration of a state of originary plenitude" (Skempton, 2010, p. 1). This original state refers to a conceptualized essence of humanity where everything that "is diagnosed as alienated, must have become distanced from... the human being's true nature or essence" (Jaeggi, 2014, p. vii). This escape from the perceived origin of humanity's essence "is often discussed either as a set of social structures or, equally, frequently, as a range of pervasive emotions" (Schmitt, 2002, p. vii).
However, this article will consider the term in a simplified state with a slightly altered scope of meaning where it will be treated as synonymous with cultural estrangement—a distancing from established societal values. That conception is not entirely divided from Marx’s idea of alienation that primarily focuses on the working man and the working class, and is, first and foremost, a comment on capitalism’s labor practices. Those very practices are a part of an indoctrinated world view, a status quo to which all else must conform in order to succeed. Thus, alienation can be thought of as removing oneself from the common equation of day-to-day life in the contemporary capitalist world, but can also be specifically focused on one’s inability (or unwillingness) to conform with cultural norms and perceptions.
Of course, it must immediately be made clear that cultural estrangement as presented in this article does not account for extreme cases which could lead to anarchy or revolt of any sort. The main idea is merely that one’s action and one’s desires can lead a person away from culturally established norms. This can result in ostracization from society or even villainization through the act of alienating (or making strange) a particular group or behavioral habit. Student protests in the 1960s serve as a good example of cultural estrangement—students gathered en masse in order to oppose policies that shaped a new cultural reality in the United States.
Stranger Things is a Netflix science fiction and horror series set in the fictional town of Hawkins in 1980s Indiana. The first episode lays the groundwork for the series and an entire storyline is built around a group of kids whose behavioral patterns and interests do not align with cultural norms. It is immediately clear that the kids form a friend group that is at odds with the rest of their contemporary society which alienates them—a common occurrence at school, where certain groups of students are perceived as the standard to which all others aspire. It goes without saying that such divisions are merely a mirror of the real world and the various imagery of capitalistic ideal that constantly projects idols one should worship and strive towards, be it celebrities or business moguls.
However, it is Stranger Things' fourth season that brings about the perfect example of cultural estrangement with a direct parallel to real life events. In the 1980s, a phenomenon known as the “Satanic Panic” occurred: “critics of fantasy role-playing games claimed these games were one of the most effective and ingenious tools for the spread of Satanism” (Laycock, 2015, p. 102). This very event and the emotions tied with it serve as the central premise of one of the major storylines in the fourth season of the series. A group of kids partakes in the “Hellfire Club” which is a rather evocative name for a gathering of kids playing a fantasy role-playing game. The name’s overt tie-in with imagery of Satanism causes a plot plot line in which citizens of Hawkins are rallied into action by a desperate, grieving individual looking for revenge, encouraging them to grab their proverbial pitchforks and to uncover the supposed cultists.
The fictional society of Hawkins is looking for someone to blame because of recent murders within the town: the easiest targets are those that have already been alienated for a different reason. Without any evidence and entirely against the suggestion given by the police department, they accuse an innocent man of a gruesome crime. Under these circumstances, there is no chance for defense because the man in question has already been a victim of cultural estrangement and thus figures as the perfect target for the conjoined hatred of the community from which he has been ostracized. This prejudiced view of fantasy and fantasy games has not left the contemporary society even today.
At the time of this writing, the police department of Natchez, Mississippi features a website outlining the ‘warning signs of occult involvement.’ One of the first items on the list reads: ‘Heavy into fantasy games. Note: Fantasy games have no rules or guidelines. They encourage creativity without boundaries. The player loses the boundary between reality and fantasy’. (Laycock, 2015, p. 103)
The popularity of a show like Stranger Things once again brings such important topics to light. Acts of alienation that are forced onto individuals because of their belonging to a particular group can lead to a general rise of hatred and misunderstanding. Cultural estrangement can be applied to all facets of societal relations and it is as relevant as ever, especially in an age where everyone's opinion can be heard due to globalization and social media. For all the good such developments have brought, they have also opened many new avenues to propagate harmful and deluded beliefs. Easily consumable media (namely series and/or movies on streaming services) that comment on such issues are becoming more indispensable by the day. In a world where no one has time for philosophical contemplation or long written narratives, popular culture may need to carry on the torch of enlightenment lit by its canonical predecessors.
Gilabert, P. (2020). Alienation, freedom, and dignity. Philosophical Topics, 48(2), 51–80. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48652121
Jaeggi, R. (2014). Alienation. Columbia University Press.
Laycock, J. P. (2015). Dangerous games: What the moral panic over role-playing games says about play, religion, and imagined worlds. University of California Press.
Schmitt, R. (2002). Alienation and Freedom. Westview Press.
Skempton, S. (2010). Alienation After Derrida. Continuum.
Cover figure: Netflix. (2022). Stranger Things; Vecna [TV Series Still]. Games Radar. Retrieved from: https://www.gamesradar.com/stranger-things-season-4-vecna-origins-explained/
Figure 1: Anonymous. (n.d.). The Metamorphosis [Illustration]. Esuelapedia. Retrieved from: https://www.escuelapedia.com/la-metamorfosis-de-kafka/
Figure 2: Bernazzani, C. (n.d.). Marxist Theory of Alienation [Illustration]. Communication Theory. Retrieved from: https://www.communicationtheory.org/marxist-theory-of-alienation/
Figure 3: Netflix. (2022). Stranger Things; Eddie Munson and the Hellfire Club [TV Series Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/mediaviewer/rm2883263489/
Figure 4: Netflix. (2022). Stranger Things; The Hellfire Club Shirt [TV Series Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/mediaviewer/rm4189396737/
Figure 5: Netflix (2022). Stranger Things; The Hellfire Club Huddle [TV Series Still]. Gamers Grade. Retrieved from: https://gamersgrade.com/stranger-things-4-cast-plays-a-dnd-one-shot-campaign-video/