Herbert Marcuse 1969
An Essay on Liberation
Transcribed: by Alejandro Thamm;
1 – A Biological Foundation for Socialism?
2 – The New Sensibility
3 – Subverting Forces – in Transition
4 – Solidarity
Thanks Again to my friends who read the manuscript and whose comments and criticism I heeded throughout: especially Leo Lowenthal (University of California at Berkeley), Arno J. Mayer (Princeton University). and Barrington Moore, Jr. (Harvard University). My wife discussed with me every part and problem of the manuscript. Without her cooperation, this essay would have appeared much sooner. I am grateful to her that it didn’t.
The growing opposition to the global dominion of corporate capitalism is confronted by the sustained power of this dominion: its economic and military hold in the four continents, its neocolonial empire, and, most important, its unshaken capacity to subject the majority of the underlying population to its overwhelming productivity and force. This global power keeps the socialist orbit on the defensive, all too costly not only in terms of military expenditures but also in the perpetuation of a repressive bureaucracy. The development of socialism thus continues to be deflected from its original goals, and the competitive coexistence with the West generates values and aspirations for which the American standard of living serves as a model.
Now, however, this threatening homogeneity has been loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into the repressive continuum. This alternative is not so much a different road to socialism as an emergence of different goals and values, different aspirations in the men and women who resist and deny the massive exploitative power of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and liberal realizations. The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms.
In Vietnam, in Cuba, in China, a revolution is being defended and driven forward which struggles to eschew the bureaucratic administration of socialism. The guerrilla forces in Latin America seem to be animated by that same subversive impulse: liberation. At the same time, the apparently impregnable economic fortress of corporate capitalism shows signs of mounting strain: it seems that even the United States cannot indefinitely deliver its goods – guns and butter, napalm and color TV, The ghetto populations may well become the first mass basis of revolt (though not of revolution). The student opposition is spreading in the old socialist as well as capitalist countries. In France, it has for the first time challenged the full force of the regime and recaptured, for a short moment, the libertarian power of the red and the black flags; moreover, it has demonstrated the prospects for an enlarged basis. The temporary suppression of the rebellion will not reverse the trend.
None of these forces is the alternative. However, they outline, in very different dimensions, the limits of the established societies, of their power of containment. When these limits are reached, the Establishment may initiate a new order of totalitarian suppression. But beyond these limits, there is also the space, both physical and mental, for building a realm of freedom which is not that of the present: liberation also from the liberties of exploitative order – a liberation which must precede the construction of a free society, one which necessitates an historical break with the past and the present.
It would be irresponsible to overrate the present chances of these forces (this essay will stress the obstacles and “delays”), but the facts are there, facts which are not only the symbols but also the embodiments of hope. They confront the critical theory of society with the task of reexamining the prospects for the emergence of a socialist society qualitatively different from existing societies, the task of redefining socialism and its preconditions.
In the following chapters, I attempt to develop some ideas first submitted in Eros and Civilization and in One-Dimensional Man, then further discussed in “Repressive Tolerance” and in lectures delivered in recent years, mostly to student audiences in the United States and in Europe. This essay was written before the events of May and June 1968 in France. I have merely added some footnotes in the way of documentation. The coincidence between some of the ideas suggested in my essay, and those formulated by the young militants was to me striking. The radical utopian character of their demands far surpasses the hypotheses of my essay; and yet, these demands were developed and formulated in the course of action itself; they are expressions of concrete political practice. The militants have invalidated the concept of “utopia” – they have denounced a vicious ideology. No matter whether their action was a revolt or an abortive revolution, it is a turning point. In proclaiming the “permanent challenge” (la contestation permanente), the “permanent education,” the Great Refusal, they recognize the mark of social repression, even in the most sublime manifestations of traditional culture, even in the most spectacular manifestations of technical progress. They have again raised a specter (and this time a specter which haunts not only the bourgeoisie but all exploitative bureaucracies) : the specter of a revolution which subordinates the development of productive forces and higher standards of living to the requirements of creating solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, for the attainment of peace. In one word: they have taken the idea of revolution out of the continuum of repression and placed it into its authentic dimension: that of liberation.
The young militants know or sense that what is at stake is simply their life, the life of human beings which has become a plaything in the hands of politicians and managers and generals. The rebels want to take it out of these hands and make it worth living; they realize that this is still possible today, and that the attainment of this goal necessitates a struggle which can no longer be contained by the rules and regulations of a pseudo-democracy in a Free Orwellian World. To them I dedicate this essay.
Up to now, it has been one of the principal tenets of the critical theory of society (and particularly Marxian theory) to refrain from what might be reasonably called utopian speculation. Social theory is supposed to analyze existing societies in the light of their own functions and capabilities and to identify demonstrable tendencies (if any) which might lead beyond the existing state of affairs. By logical inference from the prevailing conditions and institutions, critical theory may also be able to determine the basic institutional changes which are the prerequisites for the transition to a higher stage of development: “higher” in the sense of a more rational and equitable use of resources, minimization of destructive conflicts, and enlargement of the realm of freedom. But beyond these limits, critical theory did not venture for fear of losing its scientific character.
I believe that this restrictive conception must be revised, and that the revision is suggested, and even necessitated, by the actual evolution of contemporary societies. The dynamic of their productivity deprives “utopia” of its traditional unreal content: what is denounced as “utopian” is no longer that which has “no place” and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of the established societies.
Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future. But we know now that neither their rational use nor – and this is decisive – their collective control by the “immediate producers” (the workers) would by itself eliminate domination and exploitation: a bureaucratic welfare state would still be a state of repression which would continue even into the “second phase of socialism,” when each is to receive “according to his needs.”
What is now at stake are the needs themselves. At this stage, the question is no longer: how can the individual satisfy his own needs without hurting others, but rather: how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude? The advent of a free society would be characterized by the fact that the growth of well-being turns into an essentially new quality of life. This qualitative change must occur in the needs, in the infrastructure of man (itself a dimension of the infrastructure of society): the new direction, the new institutions and relationships of production, must express the ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitative societies. Such a change would constitute the instinctual basis for freedom which the long history of class society has blocked. Freedom would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performances required for well-being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life. The rebellion would then have taken root in the very nature, the “biology” of the individual; and on these new grounds, the rebels would redefine the objectives and the strategy of the political struggle, in which alone the concrete goals of liberation can be determined.
Is such a change in the “nature” of man conceivable? I believe so, because technical progress has reached a stage in which reality no longer need be defined by the debilitating competition for social survival and advancement. The more these technical capacities outgrow the framework of exploitation within which they continue to be confined and abused, the more they propel the drives and aspirations of men to a point at which the necessities of life cease to demand the aggressive performances of “earning a living,” and the “non-necessary” becomes a vital need. This proposition, which is central in Marxian theory, is familiar enough, and the managers and publicists of corporate capitalism are well aware of its meaning; they are prepared to “contain” its dangerous consequences. The radical opposition also is aware of these prospects, but the critical theory which is to guide political practice still lags behind. Marx and Engels refrained from developing concrete concepts of the possible forms of freedom in a socialist society; today, such restraint no longer seems justified. The growth of the productive forces suggests possibilities of human liberty very different from, and beyond those envisaged at the earlier stage. Moreover, these real possibilities suggest that the gap which separates a free society from the existing societies would be wider and deeper precisely to the degree to which the repressive power and productivity of the latter shape man and his environment in their image and interest.
For the world of human freedom cannot be built by the established societies, no matter how much they may streamline and rationalize their dominion. Their class structure, and the perfected controls required to sustain it, generate needs, satisfactions, and values which reproduce the servitude of the human existence. This “voluntary” servitude (voluntary inasmuch as it is introjected into the individuals) , which justifies the benevolent masters, can be broken only through a political practice which reaches the roots of containment and contentment in the infrastructure of man, a political practice of methodical disengagement from and refusal of the Establishment, aiming at a radical transvaluation of values. Such a practice involves a break with the familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding things so that the organism may become receptive to the potential forms of a non-aggressive, non-exploitative world.
No matter how remote from these notions the rebellion may be, no matter how destructive and self-destructive it may appear, no matter how great the distance between the middle-class revolt in the metropoles and the life-and-death struggle of the wretched of the earth – common to them is the depth of the Refusal. It makes them reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient strategy of patience and persuasion, the reliance on the Good Will in the Establishment, its false and immoral comforts, its cruel affluence.
1 – A Biological Foundation for Socialism?
In the affluent society, capitalism comes into its Own. The two mainsprings of its dynamic – the escalation of commodity production and productive exploitation – join and permeate all dimensions of private and public existence. The available material and intellectual resources (the potential of liberation) have so much outgrown the established institutions that only the systematic increase in waste, destruction, and management keeps the system going. The opposition which escapes suppression by the police, the courts, the representatives of the people, and the people themselves, finds expression in the diffused rebellion among the youth and the intelligentsia, and in the daily struggle of the persecuted minorities. The armed class struggle is waged outside: by the wretched of the earth who fight the affluent monster.
The critical analysis of this society calls for new categories: moral, political, aesthetic. I shall try to develop them in the course of the discussion. The category of obscenity will serve as an introduction.
This society is obscene in producing and indecently exposing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its victims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; in its prayers, in its ignorance, and in the wisdom of its kept intellectuals.
Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another. Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace. Linguistic therapy – that is, the effort to free words (and thereby concepts) from the all but total distortion of their meanings by the Establishment – demands the transfer of moral standards (and of their validation) from the Establishment to the revolt against it. Similarly, the sociological and political vocabulary must be radically reshaped: it must be stripped of its false neutrality; it must be methodically and provocatively “moralized” in terms of the Refusal. Morality is not necessarily and not primarily ideological. In the face of an amoral society, it becomes a political weapon, an effective force which drives people to burn their draft cards, to ridicule national leaders, to demonstrate in the streets, and to unfold signs saying, “Thou shalt not kill,” in the nation’s churches.
The reaction to obscenity is shame, usually interpreted as the physiological manifestation of the sense of guilt accompanying the transgression of a taboo. The obscene exposures of the affluent society normally provoke neither shame nor a sense of guilt, although this society violates some of the most fundamental moral taboos of civilization. The term obscenity belongs to the sexual sphere; shame and the sense of guilt arise in the Oedipal situation. If in this respect social morality is rooted in sexual morality, then the shamelessness of the affluent society and its effective repression of the sense of guilt would indicate a decline of shame and guilt feeling in the sexual sphere. And indeed, the exposure of the (for all practical purposes) naked body is permitted and even encouraged, and the taboos on pre- and extramarital, intercourse are considerably relaxed. Thus we are faced with the contradiction that the liberalization of sexuality provides an instinctual basis for the repressive and aggressive power of the affluent society.
This contradiction can be resolved if we understand that the liberalization of the Establishment’s own morality takes place within the framework of effective controls; kept within this framework, the liberalization strengthens the cohesion of the whole. The relaxation of taboos alleviates the sense of guilt and binds (though with considerable ambivalence) the “free” individuals libidinally to the institutionalized fathers. They are powerful but also tolerant fathers, whose management of the nation and its economy delivers and protects the liberties of the citizens. On the other hand, if the violation of taboos transcends the sexual sphere and leads to refusal and rebellion, the sense of guilt is not alleviated and repressed but rather transferred: not we, but the fathers, are guilty; they are not tolerant but false; they want to redeem their own guilt by making us, the sons, guilty; they have created a world of hypocrisy and violence in which we do not wish to live. Instinctual revolt turns into political rebellion, and against this union, the Establishment mobilizes its full force.
This union provokes such a response because it reveals the prospective scope of social change at this stage of development, the extent to which the radical political practice involves a cultural subversion. The refusal with which the opposition confronts the existing society is affirmative in that it envisages a new culture which fulfills the humanistic promises betrayed by the old culture. Political radicalism thus implies moral radicalism: the emergence of a morality which might precondition man for freedom. This radicalism activates the elementary, organic foundation of morality in the human being. Prior to all ethical behavior in accordance with specific social standards, prior to all ideological expression, morality is a “disposition” of the organism, perhaps rooted in the erotic drive to counter aggressiveness, to create and preserve “ever greater unities” of life. We would then have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings – a solidarity which has been effectively repressed in line with the requirements of class society but which now appears as a precondition for liberation.
To the degree to which this foundation is itself historical and the malleability of “human nature” reaches into the depth of man’s instinctual structure, changes in morality may “sink down” into the “biological" dimension and modify organic behavior. Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected – it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behavior and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.
The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined. The second nature of man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this dependence of man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise – abolish his existence as a consumer consuming himself in buying and selling. The needs generated by this system are thus eminently stabilizing, conservative needs: the counterrevolution anchored in the instinctual structure.
The market has always been one of exploitation and thereby of domination, insuring the class structure of society. However, the productive process of advanced capitalism has altered the form of domination: the technological veil covers the brute presence and the operation of the class interest in the merchandise. Is it still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engines of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?
Not the automobile is repressive, not the television set is repressive, not the household gadgets are repressive, but the automobile, the television, the gadgets which, produced in accordance with the requirements of profitable exchange, have become part and parcel of the people’s own existence, own “actualization.” Thus they have to buy part and parcel of their own existence on the market; this existence is the realization of capital. The naked class interest builds the unsafe and obsolescent automobiles, and through them promotes destructive energy; the class interest employs the mass media for the advertising of violence and stupidity, for the creation of captive audiences. In doing so, the masters only obey the demand of the public, of the masses; the famous law of supply and demand establishes the harmony between the rulers and the ruled. This harmony is indeed pre-established to the degree to which the masters have created the public which asks for their wares, and asks for them more insistently if it can release, in and through the wares, its frustration and the aggressiveness resulting from this frustration. Self-determination, the autonomy of the individual, asserts itself in the right to race his automobile, to handle his power tools, to buy a gun, to communicate to mass audiences his opinion, no matter how ignorant, how aggressive, it may be. Organized capitalism has sublimated and turned to socially productive use frustration and primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented scale – unprecedented not in terms of the quantity of violence but rather in terms of its capacity to produce long-range contentment and satisfaction, to reproduce the “voluntary servitude.” To be sure, frustration, unhappiness, and sickness remain the basis of this sublimation, but the productivity and the brute power of the system still keep the basis well under control. The achievements justify the system of domination. The established values become the people’s own values: adaptation turns into spontaneity, autonomy; and the choice between social necessities appears as freedom. In this sense, the continuing exploitation is not only hidden behind the technological veil, but actually “transfigured.” The capitalist production relations are responsible not only for the servitude and toil but also for the greater happiness and fun available to the majority of the population – and they deliver more goods than before.
Neither its vastly increased capacity to produce the commodities of satisfaction nor the peaceful management of class conflicts rendered possible by this capacity cancels the essential features of capitalism, namely, the private appropriation of surplus value (steered but not abolished by government intervention) and its realization in the corporate interest. Capitalism reproduces itself by transforming itself, and this transformation is mainly in the improvement of exploitation. Do exploitation and domination cease to be what they are and what they do to man if they are no longer suffered, if they are “compensated” by previously unknown comforts? Does labor cease to be debilitating if mental energy increasingly replaces physical energy in producing the goods and services which sustain a system that makes hell of large areas of the globe? An affirmative answer would justify any form of oppression which keeps the populace calm and content; while a negative answer would deprive the individual of being the judge of his own happiness.
The notion that happiness is an objective condition which demands more than subjective feelings has been effectively obscured; its validity depends on the real solidarity of the species “man,” which a society divided into antagonistic classes and nations cannot achieve. As long as this is the history of mankind, the “state of nature,” no matter how refined, prevails: a civilized helium omnium contra omnes, in which the happiness of the ones must coexist with the suffering of the others. The First International was the last attempt to realize the solidarity of the species by grounding it in that social class in which the subjective and objective interest, the particular and the universal, coincided (the International is the late concretization of the abstract philosophical concept of “man as man,” human being, “Gattungswesen,” which plays such a decisive role in Marx’ and Engels’ early writings). Then, the Spanish civil war aroused this solidarity, which is the driving power of liberation, in the unforgettable, hopeless fight of a tiny minority against the combined forces of fascist and liberal capitalism. Here, in the international brigades which, with their poor weapons, withstood overwhelming technical superiority, was the union of young intellectuals and workers – the union which has become the desperate goal of today’s radical opposition.
Attainment of this goal is thwarted by the integration of the organized (and not only the organized) laboring class into the system of advanced capitalism. Under its impact, the distinction between the real and the immediate interest of the exploited has collapsed. This distinction, far from being an abstract idea, was guiding the strategy of the Marxist movements; it expressed the necessity transcending the economic struggle of the laboring classes, to extend wage demands and demands for the improvement of working conditions to the political arena, to drive the class struggle to the point at which the system itself would be at stake, to make foreign as well as domestic policy, the national as well as the class interest, the target of this struggle. The real interest, the attainment of conditions in which man could shape his own life, was that of no longer subordinating his life to the requirements of profitable production, to an apparatus controlled by forces beyond his control. And the attainment of such conditions meant the abolition of capitalism.
It is not simply the higher standard of living, the illusory bridging of the consumer gap between the rulers and the ruled, which has obscured the distinction between the real and the immediate interest of the ruled. Marxian theory soon recognized that impoverishment does not necessarily provide the soil for revolution, that a highly developed consciousness and imagination may generate a vital need for radical change in advanced material conditions. The power of corporate capitalism has stifled the emergence of such a consciousness and imagination; its mass media have adjusted the rational and emotional faculties to its market and its policies and steered them to defense of its dominion. The narrowing of the consumption gap has rendered possible the mental and instinctual coordination of the laboring classes: the majority of organized labor shares the stabilizing, counterrevolutionary needs of the middle classes, as evidenced by their behavior as consumers of the material and cultural merchandise, by their emotional revulsion against the nonconformist intelligentsia. Conversely, where the consumer gap is still wide, where the capitalist culture has not yet reached into every house or hut, the system of stabilizing needs has its limits; the glaring contrast between the privileged class and the exploited leads to a radicalization of the underprivileged. This is the case of the ghetto population and the unemployed in the United States; this is also the case of the laboring classes in the more backward capitalist countries.
By virtue of its basic position in the production process, by virtue of its numerical weight and the weight of exploitation, the working class is still the historical agent of revolution; by virtue of its sharing the stabilizing needs of the system, it has become a conservative, even counterrevolutionary force. Objectively, “in-itself,” labor still is the potentially revolutionary class; subjectively, “for-itself,” it is not. This theoretical conception has concrete significance in the prevailing situation, in which the working class may help to circumscribe the scope and the targets of political practice.
In the advanced capitalist countries, the radicalization of the working classes is counteracted by a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and by the development and satisfaction of needs which perpetuate the servitude of the exploited. A vested interest in the existing system is thus fostered in the instinctual structure of the exploited, and the rupture with the continuum of repression a necessary precondition of liberation – does not occur. It follows that the radical change which is to transform the existing society into a free society must reach into a dimension of the human existence hardly considered in Marxian theory – the -biological- dimension in which the vital, imperative needs and satisfactions of man assert themselves. Inasmuch as these needs and satisfactions reproduce a life in servitude, liberation presupposes changes in this biological dimension, that is to say, different instinctual needs, different reactions of the body as well as the mind.
The qualitative difference between the existing societies and a free society affects all needs and satisfactions beyond the animal level, that is to say, all those which are essential to the human species, man as rational animal. All these needs and satisfactions are permeated with the exigencies of profit and exploitation. The entire realm of competitive performances and standardized fun, all the symbols of status, prestige, power, of advertised virility and charm, of commercialized beauty – this entire realm kills in its citizens the very disposition, the organs, for the alternative: freedom without exploitation.
Triumph and end of introjection: the stage where the people cannot reject the system of domination without rejecting themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs and values. We would have to conclude that liberation would mean subversion against the will and against the prevailing interests of the great majority of the people. In this false identification of social and individual needs, in this deep-rooted, “organic” adaptation of the people to a terrible but profitably functioning society, lie the limits of democratic persuasion and evolution. On the overcoming of these limits depends the establishment of democracy.
It is precisely this excessive adaptability of the human organism which propels the perpetuation and extension of the commodity form and, with it, the perpetuation and extension of the social controls over behavior and satisfaction.
The ever-increasing complexity of the social structure will make some form of regimentation unavoidable, freedom and privacy may come to constitute antisocial luxuries and their attainment to involve real hardships. In consequence, there may emerge by selection a stock of human beings suited genetically to accept as a matter of course a regimented and sheltered way of life in a teeming and polluted world, from which all wilderness and fantasy of nature will have disappeared. The domesticated farm animal and the laboratory rodent on a controlled regimen in a controlled environment will then become true models for the study of man.
Thus, it is apparent that food, natural resources, supplies of power, and other elements involved in the operation of the body machine and of the individual establishment are not the only factors to be considered in determining the optimum number of people that can live on earth. Just as important for maintaining the human qualities of life is an environment in which it is possible to satisfy the longing for quiet, privacy, independence, initiative, and some open space...
Capitalist progress thus not only reduces the environment of freedom, the “open space” of the human existence, but also the ‘longing,” the need for such an environment. And in doing so, quantitative progress militates against qualitative change even if the institutional barriers against radical education and action are surmounted. This is the vicious circle: the rupture with the self-propelling conservative continuum of needs must precede the revolution which is to usher in a free society, but such rupture itself can be envisaged only in a revolution – a revolution which would be driven by the vital need to be freed from the administered comforts and the destructive productivity of the exploitative society, freed from smooth heteronomy, a revolution which, by virtue of this “biological” foundation, would have the chance of turning quantitative technical progress into qualitatively different ways of life – precisely because it would be a revolution occurring at a high level of material and intellectual development, one which would enable man to conquer scarcity and poverty. If this idea of a radical transformation is to be more than idle speculation, it must have an objective foundation in the production process of advanced industrial society, in its technical capabilities and their use.
For freedom indeed depends largely on technical progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition: in order to become vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility – the demands of the life instincts. Then one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil. But this gaya scienza is conceivable only after the historical break in the continuum of domination as expressive of the needs of a new type of man.
The idea of a new type of man as the member (though not as the builder) of a socialist society appears in Marx and Engels in the concept of the “all-round individual,” free to engage in the most varying activities. In the socialist society corresponding to this idea, the free development of individual faculties would replace the subjection of the individual to the division of labor. But no matter what activities the all-round individual would choose, they would be activities which are bound to lose the quality of freedom if exercised “en masse” – and they would be “en masse,” for even the most authentic socialist society would inherit the population growth and the mass basis of advanced capitalism. The early Marxian example of the free individuals alternating between hunting, fishing, criticizing, and so on, had a joking-ironical sound from the beginning, indicative of the impossibility anticipating the ways in which liberated human beings would use their freedom. However, the embarrassingly ridiculous sound may also indicate the degree to which this vision has become obsolete and pertains to a stage of the development of the productive forces which has been surpassed. The later Marxian concept implies the continued separation between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, between labor and leisure – not only in time, but also in such a manner that the same subject lives a different life in the two realms. According to this Marxian conception, the realm of necessity would continue under socialism to such an extent that real human freedom would prevail only outside the entire sphere of socially necessary labor. Marx rejects the idea that work can ever become play. Alienation would be reduced with the progressive reduction of the working day, but the latter would remain a day of unfreedom, rational but not free. However, the development of the productive forces beyond their capitalist organization suggests the possibility of freedom within the realm of necessity. The quantitative reduction of necessary labor could turn into quality (freedom), not in proportion to the reduction but rather to the transformation of the working day, a transformation in which the stupefying, enervating, pseudo-automatic jobs of capitalist progress would be abolished. But the construction of such a society presupposes a type of man with a different sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses; men who have developed an instinctual barrier against cruelty, brutality, ugliness. Such an instinctual transformation is conceivable as a factor of social change only if it enters the social division of labor, the production relations themselves. They would be shaped by men and women who have the good conscience of being human, tender, sensuous, who are no longer ashamed of themselves – for -the token of freedom attained, that is, no longer being ashamed of ourselves” (Nietzsche, Die Frohliche Wissenschaft, Book III, 275). The imagination of such men and women would fashion their reason and tend to make the process of production a process of creation. This is the utopian concept of socialism which envisages the ingression of freedom into the realm of necessity, and the union between causality by necessity and causality by freedom. The first would mean passing from Marx to Fourier; the second from realism to surrealism.
A utopian conception? It has been the great, real, transcending force, the “idée neuve,” in the first powerful rebellion against the whole of the existing society, the rebellion for the total transvaluation of values, for qualitatively different ways of life: the May rebellion in France. The graffiti of the “jeunesse en colère” joined Karl Marx and Andre Breton; the slogan “l'imagination au pouvoir” went well with “les comités (soviets) partout”; the piano with the jazz player stood well between the barricades; the red flag well fitted the statue of the author of Les Miserables; and striking students in Toulouse demanded the revival of the language of the Troubadours, the Albigensians. The new sensibility has become a political force. It crosses the frontier between the capitalist and the communist orbit ; it is contagious because the atmosphere, the climate of the established societies, carries the virus.
2 – The New Sensibility
The new Sensibility has become a political factor. This event, which may well indicate a turning point in the evolution of contemporary societies, demands that critical theory incorporate the new dimension into its concepts, project its implications for the possible construction of a free society. Such a society presupposes throughout the achievements of the existing societies, especially their scientific and technical achievements. Released from their service in the cause of exploitation, they could be mobilized for the global elimination of poverty and toil. True, this redirection of the intellectual and material production already presupposes the revolution in the capitalist world; the theoretical projection seems to be fatally premature – were it not for the fact that the awareness of the transcendent possibilities of freedom must become a driving power in the consciousness and the imagination which prepare the soil for this revolution. The latter will be essentially different, and effective, precisely to the degree to which it is carried forward by this power.
The new sensibility, which expresses the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt, would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery and would shape the further evolution of the “standard of living.” The life instincts would find rational expression (sublimation) in planning the distribution of the socially necessary labor time within and among the various branches of production, thus setting priorities of goals and choices: not only what to produce but also the “form” of the product. The liberated consciousness would promote the development of a science and technology free to discover and realize the possibilities of things and men in the protection and gratification of life, playing with the potentialities of form and matter for the attainment of this goal. Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated. Emergence of a new Reality Principle: under which a new sensibility and a desublimated scientific intelligence would combine in the creation of an aesthetic ethos.
The term “aesthetic,” in its dual connotation of “pertaining to the senses” and “pertaining to art,” may serve to designate the quality of the productive-creative process in an environment of freedom. Technique, assuming the features of art, would translate subjective sensibility into objective form, into reality. This would be the sensibility of men and women who do not have to be ashamed of themselves anymore because they have overcome their sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify themselves with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and forgotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental temples of the corporations, and who have worshiped the higher culture of this reality. If and when men and women act and think free from this identification, they will have broken the chain which linked the fathers and the sons from generation to generation. They will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have become free to stop them and to prevent their recommencement. Chance of reaching the point of no return to the past: if and when the causes are eliminated which have made the history of mankind the history of domination and servitude. These causes are economic-political, but since they have shaped the very instincts and needs of men, no economic and political changes will bring this historical continuum to a stop unless they are carried through by men who are physiologically and psychologically able to experience things, and each other, outside the context of violence and exploitation.
The new sensibility has become, by this very token, praxis: it emerges in the struggle against violence and exploitation where this struggle is waged for essentially new ways and forms of life: negation of the entire Establishment, its morality, culture; affirmation of the right to build a society in which the abolition of poverty and toil terminates in a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence and thereby the Form of the society itself.
The aesthetic as the possible Form of a free society appears at that stage of development where the intellectual and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are available, where previously progressive repression turns into regressive suppression, where the higher culture in which the aesthetic values (and the aesthetic truth) had been monopolized and segregated from the reality collapses and dissolves in desublimated, “lower,” and destructive forms, where the hatred of the young bursts into laughter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor, love play and heroism. And the young also attack the esprit de serieux in the socialist camp: miniskirts against the apparatchiks, rock ‘n’ roll against Soviet Realism. The insistence that a socialist society can and ought to be light, pretty, playful, that these qualities are essential elements of freedom, the faith in the rationality of the imagination, the demand for a new morality and culture – does this great anti-authoritarian rebellion indicate a new dimension and direction of radical change, the appearance of new agents of radical change, and a new vision of socialism in its qualitative difference from the established societies? Is there anything in the aesthetic dimension which has an essential affinity with freedom not only in its sublimated cultural (artistic) but also in its desublimated political, existential form, so that the aesthetic can become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft: factor in the technique of production, horizon under which the material and intellectual needs develop?
Throughout the centuries, the analysis of the aesthetic dimension focused on the idea of the beautiful. Does this idea express the aesthetic ethos which provides the common denominator of the aesthetic and the political?
As desired object, the beautiful pertains to the domain of the primary instincts, Eros and Thanatos. The mythos links the adversaries: pleasure and terror. Beauty has the power to check aggression: it forbids and immobilizes the aggressor. The beautiful Medusa petrifies him who confronts her. “Poseidon, the god with azure locks, slept with her in a soft meadow on a bed with springtime flowers." She is slain by Perseus, and from her truncated body springs the winged horse Pegasus, symbol of poetic imagination. Kinship of the beautiful, the divine, the poetic, but also kinship of the beautiful and unsublimated joy. Subsequently, the classical aesthetic, while insisting on the harmonious union of sensuousness, imagination, and reason in the beautiful, equally insisted on the objective (ontological) character of the beautiful, as the Form in which man and nature come into their own: fulfillment. Kant asks whether there is not a hidden connection between Beauty and Perfection (Vollkommenheit), and Nietzsche notes: “the Beautiful as the mirror (Spiegelung) of the Logical, i.e., the laws of logic are the object of the laws of the Beautiful." For the artist, the beautiful is mastery of the opposites “without tension, so that violence is no longer needed....” The beautiful has the “biological value” of that which is “useful, beneficial, enhancing life” (Lebensteigernd)."
By virtue of these qualities, the aesthetic dimension can serve as a sort of gauge for a free society. A universe of human relationships no longer mediated by the market, no longer based on competitive exploitation or terror, demands a sensitivity freed from the repressive satisfactions of the unfree societies; a sensitivity receptive to forms and modes of reality which thus far have been projected only by the aesthetic imagination. For the aesthetic needs have their own social content: they are the claims of the human organism, mind and body, for a dimension of fulfillment which can be created only in the struggle against the institutions which, by their very functioning, deny and violate these claims. The radical social content of the aesthetic needs becomes evident as the demand for their most elementary satisfaction is translated into group action on an enlarged scale. From the harmless drive for better zoning regulations and a modicum of protection from noise and dirt to the pressure for closing of whole city areas to automobiles, prohibition of transistor radios in all public places, decommercialization of nature, total urban reconstruction, control of the birth rate – such action would become increasingly subversive of the institutions of capitalism and of their morality. The quantity of such reforms would turn into the quality of radical change to the degree to which they would critically weaken the economic, political, and cultural pressure and power groups which have a vested interest in preserving the environment and ecology of profitable merchandising.
The aesthetic morality is the opposite of puritanism. It does not insist on a daily bath or shower for people whose cleaning practices involve systematic torture, slaughtering, poisoning; nor does it insist on clean clothes for men who are professionally engaged in dirty deals. But it does insist on cleaning the earth from the very material garbage produced by the spirit of capitalism, and from this spirit itself. And it insists on freedom as a biological necessity: being physically incapable of tolerating any repression other than that required for the protection and amelioration of life.
When Kant, in his third Critique, all but obliterated the frontiers between sensibility and imagination, he recognized the extent to which the senses are “productive,” creative – the extent to which they have a share in producing the images of freedom. For its part, the imagination depends on the senses which provide the experiential material out of which the imagination creates its realm of freedom, by transforming the objects and relationships which have been the data of the senses and which have been formed by the senses. The freedom of the imagination is thus restrained by the order of the sensibility, not only by its pure forms (space and time), but also by its empirical content which, as the object-world to be transcended, remains a determining factor in the transcendence. Whatever beautiful or sublime, pleasurable or terrifying forms of reality the imagination may project, they are “derived” from sensuous experience. However, the freedom of the imagination is restrained not only by the sensibility, but also, at the other pole of the organic structure, by the rational faculty of man, his reason. The most daring images of a new world, of new ways of life, are still guided by concepts, and by a logic elaborated in the development of thought, transmitted from generation to generation. On both sides, that of the sensibility and that of reason, history enters into the projects of the imagination, for the world of the senses is a historical world, and reason is the conceptual mastery and interpretation of the historical world.
The order and organization of class society, which have shaped the sensibility and the reason of man, have also shaped the freedom of the imagination. It had its controlled play in the sciences, pure and applied, and its autonomous play in poetry, fiction, the arts. Between the dictates of instrumentalist reason on the one hand and a sense experience mutilated by the realizations of this reason on the other, the power of the imagination was repressed ; it was free to become practical, i.e., to transform reality only within the general framework of repression; beyond these limits, the practice of the imagination was violation of taboos of social morality, was perversion and subversion. In the great historical revolutions, the imagination was, for a short period, released and free to enter into the projects of a new social morality and of new institutions of freedom; then it was sacrificed to the requirements of effective reason.
If now, in the rebellion of the young intelligentsia, the right and the truth of the imagination become the demands of political action, if surrealistic forms of protest and refusal spread throughout the movement, this apparently insignificant development may indicate a fundamental change in the situation. The political protest, assuming a total character, reaches into a dimension which, as aesthetic dimension, has been essentially apolitical. And the political protest activates in this dimension precisely the foundational, organic elements: the human sensibility which rebels against the dictates of repressive reason, and, in doing so, invokes the sensuous power of the imagination. The political action which insists on a new morality and a new sensibility as preconditions and results of social change occurs at a point at which the repressive rationality that has brought about the achievements of industrial society becomes utterly regressive – rational only in its efficiency to “contain” liberation. Beyond the limits (and beyond the power) of repressive reason now appears the prospect for a new relationship between sensibility and reason, namely, the harmony between sensibility and a radical consciousness: rational faculties capable of projecting and defining the objective (material) conditions of freedom, its real limits and chances. But instead of being shaped and permeated by the rationality of domination, the sensibility would be guided by the imagination, mediating between the rational faculties and the sensuous needs. The great conception which animates Kant’s critical philosophy shatters the philosophical framework in which he kept it. The imagination, unifying sensibility and reason, becomes “productive” as it becomes practical: a guiding force in the reconstruction of reality – reconstruction with the help of a gaya scienza, a science and technology released from their service to destruction and exploitation, and thus free for the liberating exigencies of the imagination. The rational transformation of the world could then lead to a reality formed by the aesthetic sensibility of man. Such a world could (in a literal sense!) embody, incorporate, the human faculties and desires to such an extent that they appear as part of the objective determinism of nature – coincidence of causality through nature and causality through freedom. Andre Breton has made this idea the center of surrealist thought: his concept of the hasard objectif designates the nodal point at which the two chains of causation meet and bring about the event.
The aesthetic universe is the Lebenswelt on which the needs and faculties of freedom depend for their liberation. They cannot develop in an environment shaped by and for aggressive impulses, nor can they be envisaged as the mere effect of a new set of social institutions. They can emerge only in the collective practice of creating an environment: level by level, step by step – in the material and intellectual production, an environment in which the non-aggressive, erotic, receptive faculties of man, in harmony with the consciousness of freedom, strive for the pacification of man and nature. In the reconstruction of society for the attainment of this goal, reality altogether would assume a Form expressive of the new goal. The essentially aesthetic quality of this Form would make it a work of art, but inasmuch as the Form is to emerge in the social process of production, art would have changed its traditional locus and function in society: it would have become a productive force in the material as well as cultural transformation. And as such force, art would be an integral factor in shaping the quality and the “appearance” of things, in shaping the reality, the way of life. This would mean the Aufhebung of art: end of the segregation of the aesthetic from the real, but also end of the commercial unification of business and beauty, exploitation and pleasure. Art would recapture some of its more primitive “technical” connotations: as the art of preparing (cooking!), cultivating, growing things, giving them a form which neither violates their matter nor the sensitivity – ascent of Form as one of the necessities of being, universal beyond all subjective varieties of taste, affinity, etc. According to Kant, there are pure forms of sensibility a priori, common to all human beings. Only space and time? Or is there perhaps also a more material constitutive form, such as the primary distinction between beautiful and ugly, good and bad – prior to all rationalization and ideology,. a distinction made by the senses (productive in their receptivity), distinguishing that which violates sensibility from that which gratifies it? In which case the vast varieties of taste, affinity, predilection would be the differentiation of an “original” basic form of sensibility, sense experience, on which modeling, restraining, and repressing forces would operate in accord with the respective individual and social situation.
The new sensibility and the new consciousness which are to project and guide such reconstruction demand a new language to define and communicate the new “values” (language in the wider sense which includes words, images, gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which a revolution is developing qualitatively different social conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by the development of a different language: the rupture with the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with the vocabulary of domination. The surrealist thesis, according to which the poet is the total nonconformist, finds in the poetic language the semantic elements of the revolution.
Car le poète... ne peut plus être reconnu comme tel s'il ne s'oppose par un non-conformisme total au monde où il vit. Il se dresse contre tous, y compris les révolutionnaires qui, se plaçant sur le terrain de la seule politique, arbitrairement isolée par-là de Ensemble du mouvement culturel – préconisent la soumission de la culture a l'accomplissement de la révolution sociale.
The surrealist thesis does not abandon the materialistic premises but it protests against the isolation of the material from the cultural development, which leads to a submission of the latter to the former and thus to a reduction (if not denial) of the libertarian possibilities of the revolution. Prior to their incorporation into the material development, these possibilities are “sur-realistic”: they belong to the poetic imagination, formed and expressed in the poetic language. It is not, it cannot be, an instrumentalist language, not an instrument of revolution.
It seems that the poems and the songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream.
Their time is not the present; they preserve their truth in their hope, in their refusal of the actual. The distance between the universe of poetry and that of politics is so great, the mediations which validate the poetic truth and the rationality of imagination are so complex, that any shortcut between the two realities seems fatal to poetry. There is no way in which we can envisage a historical change in the relation between the cultural and the revolutionary movement which could bridge the gap between the everyday and the poetic language and abrogate the dominance of the former. The latter seems to draw all its power and all its truth from its otherness, its transcendence.
And yet, the radical denial of the Establishment and the communication of the new consciousness depend more and more fatefully on a language of their own as all communication is monopolized and validated by the one-dimensional society. To be sure, the language of denial has, in its “material,” always been the same as the language of affirmation; the linguistic continuity reasserted itself after every revolution. Perhaps necessarily so, because through all revolutions, the continuity of domination has been sustained. But in the past, the language of indictment and liberation, though it shared its vocabulary with the masters and their retainers, had found its own meaning and validation in actual revolutionary struggles which eventually changed the established societies. The familiar (used and abused) vocabulary of freedom, justice, and equality could thus obtain not only new meaning but also new reality the reality which emerged in the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries and led to less restricted forms of freedom, justice, and equality.
Today, the rupture with the linguistic universe of the Establishment is more radical: in the most militant areas of protest, it amounts to a methodical reversal of meaning. It is a familiar phenomenon that sub-cultural groups develop their own language, taking the harmless words of everyday communication out of their context and using them for designating objects or activities tabooed by the Establishment. This is the Hippie subculture: “trip,” “grass,” “pot,” “acid,” and so on. But a far more subversive universe of discourse announces itself in the language of black militants. Here is a systematic linguistic rebellion, which smashes the ideological context in which the words are employed and defined, and places them into the opposite context – negation of the established one. Thus, the blacks “take over” some of the most sublime and sublimated concepts of Western civilization, desublimate them, and redefine them. For example, the -soul” (in its essence lily-white ever since Plato), the traditional seat of everything that is truly human in man, tender, deep, immortal – the word which has become embarrassing, corny, false in the established universe of discourse, has been desublimated and in this transsubstantiation, migrated to the Negro culture: they are soul brothers; the soul is black, violent, orgiastic; it is no longer in Beethoven, Schubert, but in the blues, in jazz, in rock ‘n’ roll, in -soul food.” Similarly, the militant slogan “black is beautiful” redefines another central concept of the traditional culture by reversing its symbolic value and associating it with the anti-color of darkness, tabooed magic, the uncanny. The ingression of the aesthetic into the political also appears at the other pole of the rebellion against the society of affluent capitalism, among the nonconformist youth. Here, too, the reversal of meaning, driven to the point of open contradiction: giving flowers to the police, “flower power” – the redefinition and very negation of the sense of “power”; the erotic belligerency in the songs of protest; the sensuousness of long hair, of the body unsoiled by plastic cleanliness.
These political manifestations of a new sensibility indicate the depth of the rebellion, of the rupture with the continuum of repression. They bear witness to the power of the society in shaping the whole of experience, the whole metabolism between the organism and its environment. Beyond the physiological level, the exigencies of sensibility develop as historical ones: the objects which the senses confront and apprehend are the products of a specific stage of civilization and of a specific society, and the senses in turn are geared to their objects. This historical interrelation affects even the primary sensations: an established society imposes upon all its members the same medium of perception; and through all the differences of individual and class perspectives, horizons, backgrounds, society provides the same general universe of experience. Consequently, the rupture with the continuum of aggression and exploitation would also break with the sensibility geared to this universe. Today’s rebels want to see, hear, feel new things in a new way: they link liberation with the dissolution of ordinary and orderly perception. The “trip” involves the dissolution of the ego shaped by the established society – an artificial and short-lived dissolution. But the artificial and “private” liberation anticipates, in a distorted manner, an exigency of the social liberation: the revolution must be at the same time a revolution in perception which will accompany the material and intellectual reconstruction of society, creating the new aesthetic environment.
Awareness of the need for such a revolution in perception, for a new sensorium, is perhaps the kernel of truth in the psychedelic search. But it is vitiated when its narcotic character brings temporary release not only from the reason and rationality of the established system but also from that other rationality which is to change the established system, when sensibility is freed not only from the exigencies of the existing order but also from those of liberation. Intentionally non-committed, the withdrawal creates its artificial paradises within the society from which it withdrew. They thus remain subject to the law of this society, which punishes the inefficient performances. In contrast, the radical transformation of society implies the union of the new sensibility with a new rationality. The imagination becomes productive if it becomes the mediator between sensibility on the one hand, and theoretical as well as practical reason on the other, and in this harmony of faculties (in which Kant saw the token of freedom) guides the reconstruction of society. Such a union has been the distinguishing feature of art, but its realization has been stopped at the point at which it would have become incompatible with the basic institutions and social relationships. The material culture, the reality, continued to lag behind the progress of reason and imagination and to condemn much of these faculties to irreality, fantasy, fiction. Art could not become a technique in reconstructing reality; the sensibility remained repressed, and the experience mutilated. But the revolt against repressive reason which released the chained power of the aesthetic in the new sensibility has also radicalized it in art: the value and function of art are undergoing essential changes. They affect the affirmative character of art (by virtue of which art has the power of reconciliation with the status quo), and the degree of sublimation (which militated against the realization of the truth, of the cognitive force of art). The protest against these features of art spreads through the entire universe of art prior to the First World War and continues with increased intensity: it gives voice and image to the negative power of art, and to the tendencies toward a desublimation of culture.
The emergence of contemporary art (I shall use “art” throughout as including the visual arts as well as literature and music) means more than the traditional replacement of one style by another. Non-objective, abstract painting and sculpture, stream-of-consciousness and formalist literature, twelve-tone composition, blues and jazz: these are not merely new modes of perception reorienting and intensifying the old ones; they rather dissolve the very structure of perception in order to make room – for what? The new object of art is not yet “given,” but the familiar object has become impossible, false. From illusion, imitation, harmony to reality – but the reality is not yet “given”; it is not the one which is the object of “realism.” Reality has to be discovered and projected. The senses must learn not to see things anymore in the medium of that law and order which has formed them; the bad functionalism which organizes our sensibility must be smashed.
From the beginning, the new art insists on its radical autonomy in tension or conflict with the development of the Bolshevik Revolution and the revolutionary movements activated by it. Art remains alien to the revolutionary praxis by virtue of the artist’s commitment to Form: Form as art’s own reality, as die Sache selbst. The Russian “formalist” B. Eikhenbaum insists:
La notion de forme a obtenu un sens nouveau, elle n'est plus une enveloppe, mais une intégrité dynamique et concrète qui a un contenu en elle-même, hors de toute corrélation.
Form is the achievement of the artistic perception which breaks the unconscious and “false” “automatism,” the unquestioned familiarity which operates in every practice, including the revolutionary practice – an automatism of immediate experience, but a socially engineered experience which militates against the liberation of sensibility. The artistic perception is supposed to shatter this immediacy which, in truth, is a historical product: the medium of experience imposed by the established society but coagulating into a self-sufficient, closed, “automatic” system:
Ainsi la vie disparaît, se transformant en un rien. L'automatisation avale les objets, les habits, les meubles, la femme et la peur de la guerre
If this deadly system of life is to be changed without being replaced by another deadly one, men must learn to develop the new sensibility of life of their own life and that of things:
Et voilà que pour rendre la sensation de la vie, pour sentir les objets, pour éprouver que la pierre est de pierre, existe ce que l'on appelle l'art. Le but de Fart, c'est de donner une sensation de l'objet comme vision et non pas comme reconnaissance; le procède de Fart est le procède de singularisation des objets et le procède qui consiste à obscurcir la forme, à augmenter la difficulté et la durée de la perception. L'acte de perception en art est une fin en soi et doit être prolonge ; l'art est un moyen d'éprouver le devenir de l'objet; ce qui est déjà ‘devenu’, n'importe pas pour l'art.
I have referred to the Formalists because it seems characteristic that the transformative element in art is emphasized by a school which insists on the artistic perception as end-in-itself, on the Form as Content. It is precisely the Form by virtue of which art transcends the given reality, works in the established reality against the established reality; and this transcendent element is inherent in art, in the artistic dimension. Art alters experience by reconstructing the objects of experience reconstructing them in word, tone, image. Why? Evidently, the “language” of art must communicate a truth, an objectivity which is not accessible to ordinary language and ordinary experience. This exigency explodes in the situation of contemporary art.
The radical character, the “violence” of this reconstruction in contemporary art seems to indicate that it does not rebel against one style or another but against “style” itself, against the art-form of art, against the traditional “meaning” of art.
The great artistic rebellion in the period of the first World War gives the signal.
Wir setzen grossen Jahrhunderten ein Nein entgegen ... (Wir) gehen, zur spottischen Verwunderung unserer Mitwelt, einen Seitenweg, der kaum ein Weg zu sein scheint, und sagen: Dies ist die Hauptstrasse der Menschheitsentwicklung.
The fight is against the “Illusionistische Kunst Europas”: art must no longer be illusory because its relation to reality has changed: the latter has become susceptible to, even dependent on, the transforming function of art. The revolutions and the defeated and betrayed revolutions which occurred in the wake of the war denounced a reality which had made art an illusion, and inasmuch as art has been an illusion (schäner Schein), the new art proclaims itself as anti-art. Moreover, the illusory art incorporated the established ideas of possession (Besitzvorstellungen) naïvely into its forms of representation: it did not question the object-character (die Dinglichkeiten) of the world as subject to man. Art must break with this reification: it must become gemalte oder modellierte Erkenntniskritik, based on a new optic replacing the Newtonian optic, and this art would correspond to a “type of man who is not like us."
Since then, the eruption of anti-art in art has manifested itself in many familiar forms: destruction of syntax, fragmentation of words and sentences, explosive use of ordinary language, compositions without score, sonatas for anything. And yet, this entire de-formation is Form: anti-art has remained art, supplied, purchased, and contemplated as art.
The wild revolt of art has remained a short-lived shock, quickly absorbed in the art gallery, within the four walls, in the concert hall, by the market, and adorning the plazas and lobbies of the prospering business establishments. Transforming the intent of art is self-defeating – a self-defeat built into the very structure of art. No matter how affirmative, “realistic” the oeuvre may be, the artist has given it a form which is not part of the reality he presents and in which he works. The oeuvre is unreal precisely inasmuch as it is art: the novel is not a newspaper story, the still life not alive, and even in pop art the real tin can is not in the supermarket. The very Form of art contradicts the effort to do away with the segregation of art to a “second reality,” to translate the truth of the productive imagination into the first reality.
The Form of art: we must once again glance at the philosophical tradition which has focused the analysis of art on the concept of the “beautiful” (in spite of the fact that so much of art is obviously not beautiful!). The beautiful has been interpreted as ethical and cognitive “value”: the kalokagathon; the beautiful as sensuous appearance of the Idea; the Way of Truth passes through the realm of the Beautiful. What is meant by these metaphors?
The root of the aesthetic is in sensibility. What is beautiful is first sensuous: it appeals to the senses; it is pleasurable, object of unsublimated drives. However, the beautiful seems to occupy a position halfway between sublimated and unsublimated objectives. Beauty is not an essential, “organic” feature of the immediate sex-object (it may even deter the unsublimated drive!), while, at the other extreme, a mathematical theorem can be called “beautiful” only in a highly abstract, figurative sense. It seems that the various connotations of beauty converge in the idea of Form.
In the aesthetic Form, the content (matter) is assembled, defined, and arranged to obtain a condition in which the immediate, unmastered forces of the matter, of the “material,” are mastered, “ordered.” Form is the negation, the mastery of disorder, violence, suffering, even when it presents disorder, violence, suffering. This triumph of art is achieved by subjecting the content to the aesthetic order, which is autonomous in its exigencies. The work of art sets its own limits and ends, it is sinngebend in relating the elements to each other according to its own law: the “form” of the tragedy, novel, sonata, picture . . . The content is thereby transformed: it obtains a meaning (sense) which transcends the elements of the content, and this transcending order is the appearance of the beautiful as the truth of art. The way in which the tragedy narrates the fate of Oedipus and the city, in which it orders the sequence of events, gives word to the unsaid and to the unspeakable – the “Form” of the tragedy terminates the horror with the end of the play – it brings the destruction to a standstill, it makes the blind seeing, the intolerable tolerable and understandable, it subordinates the wrong, the contingent, the evil, to “poetic justice.” The phrase is indicative of the internal ambivalence of art: to indict that which is, and to “cancel” the indictment in the aesthetic form, redeeming the suffering, the crime. This “redeeming,” reconciling power seems inherent in art, by virtue of its being art, by virtue of its form-giving power.
The redeeming, reconciling power of art adheres even to the most radical manifestations of non-illusory art and anti-art. They are still oeuvres: paintings, sculptures, compositions, poems, and as such they have their own form and with it their own order: their own frame (though it may be invisible), their own space, their own beginning, and their own end. The aesthetic necessity of art supersedes the terrible necessity of reality, sublimates its pain and pleasure; the blind suffering and cruelty of nature (and of the “nature” of man) assume meaning and end – “poetic justice.” The horror of the crucifixion is purified by the beautiful face of Jesus dominating the beautiful composition, the horror of politics by the beautiful verse of Racine, the horror of farewell forever by the Lied von der Erde. And in this aesthetic universe, joy and fulfillment find their proper place alongside pain and death – everything is in order again. The indictment is canceled, and even defiance, insult, and derision – the extreme artistic negation of art – succumb to this order.
With this restoration of order, the Form indeed achieves a katharsis – the terror and the pleasure of reality are purified. But the achievement is illusory, false, fictitious: it remains within the dimension of art, a work of art; in reality, fear and frustration go on unabated (as they do, after the brief katharsis, in the psyche). This is perhaps the most telling expression of the contradiction, the self-defeat, built into art: the pacifying conquest of matter, the transfiguration of the object remain unreal – just as the revolution in perception remains unreal. And this vicarious character of art has, time and again, given rise to the question as to the justification of art: was the Parthenon worth the sufferings of a single slave? Is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz? The question has been countered: when the horror of reality tends to become total and blocks political action, where else than in the radical imagination, as refusal of reality, can the rebellion, and its uncompromised goals, be remembered? But today, are the images and their realization still the domain of “illusory” art?
We suggested the historical possibility of conditions in which the aesthetic could become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft and as such could lead to the “end” of art through its realization. Today, the outline of such conditions appears only in the negativity of the advanced industrial societies. They are societies whose capabilities defy the imagination. No matter what sensibility art may wish to develop, no matter what Faun it may wish to give to things, to life, no matter what vision it may wish to communicate – a radical change of experience is within the technical reaches of powers whose terrible imagination organizes the world in their own image and perpetuates, ever bigger and better, the mutilated experience.
However, the productive forces, chained in the infrastructure of these societies, counteract this negativity in progress. To be sure, the libertarian possibilities of technology and science are effectively contained within the framework of the given reality: the calculated projection and engineering of human behavior, the frivolous invention of waste and luxurious junk, the experimentation with the limits of endurance and destruction are tokens of the mastery of necessity in the interest of exploitation – which indicate nevertheless progress in the mastery of necessity. Released from the bondage to exploitation, the imagination, sustained by the achievements of science, could turn its productive power to the radical reconstruction of experience and the universe of experience. In this reconstruction, the historical topos of the aesthetic would change: it would find expression in the transformation of the Lebenswelt – society as a work of art. This “utopian” goal depends (as every stage in the development of freedom did) on a revolution at the attainable level of liberation. In other words: the transformation is conceivable only as the way in which free men (or rather men in the practice of freeing themselves) shape their life in solidarity, and build an environment in which the struggle for existence loses its ugly and aggressive features. The Form of freedom is not merely self-determination and self-realization, but rather the determination and realization of goals which enhance, protect, and unite life on earth. And this autonomy would find expression not only in the mode of production and production relations but also in the individual relations among men, in their language and in their silence, in their gestures and their looks, in their sensitivity, in their love and hate. The beautiful would be an essential quality of their freedom.
But today’s rebels against the established culture also rebel against the beautiful in this culture, against its all too sublimated, segregated, orderly, harmonizing forms. Their libertarian aspirations appear as the negation of the traditional culture: as a methodical desublimation. Perhaps its strongest impetus comes from social groups which thus far have remained outside the entire realm of the higher culture, outside its affirmative, sublimating, and justifying magic – human beings who have lived in the shadow of this culture, the victims of the power structure which has been the basis of this culture. They now oppose to the “music of the spheres” which was the most sublime achievement of this culture their own music, with all the defiance, and the hatred, and the joy of rebellious victims, defining their own humanity against the definitions of the masters. The black music, invading the white culture, is the terrifying realization of “O Freunde, nicht these Tone!” – the refusal now hits the chorus which sings the Ode to Joy, the song which is invalidated in the culture that sings it. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus knows it: “I want to revoke the Ninth Symphony.” In the subversive, dissonant, crying and shouting rhythm, born in the “dark continent” and in the “deep South” of slavery and deprivation, the oppressed revoke the Ninth Symphony and give art a desublimated, sensuous form of frightening immediacy, moving, electrifying the body, and the soul materialized in the body. Black music is originally music of the oppressed, illuminating the extent to which the higher culture and its sublime sublimations, its beauty, have been class-based. The affinity between black music (and its avant-gardistic white development) and the political rebellion against the “affluent society” bears witness to the increasing desublimation of culture.
It is still the simple, elementary negation, the antithesis: position of the immediate denial. This desublimation leaves the traditional culture, the illusionist art behind unmastered: their truth and their claims remain valid next to and together with the rebellion, within the same given society. The rebellious music, literature, art are thus easily absorbed and shaped by the market – rendered harmless. In order to come into their own, they would have to abandon the direct appeal, the raw immediacy of their presentation, which invokes, in the protest, the familiar universe of politics and business, and with it the helpless familiarity of frustration and temporary release from frustration. Was it not precisely the rupture with this familiarity which was the methodical goal of radical art? The abrogation of the Estrangement Effect (which, to a considerable extent, was also operative in the great illusionist art) defeats the radicalism of today’s art. Thus, the “living theater” founders to the degree to which it is living, to which we immediately identify ourselves with the actors, experience our familiar sympathies, empathies, antipathies. The theater does not transcend this familiarity, this “dejâ vu” – it strengthens it. Just like the more and more organized “happenings,” like the ever more marketable pop art, this ambiance creates a deceptive “community” within the society.
The conquest of this immediate familiarity, the “mediations” which would make the many forms of rebellious art a liberating force on the societal scale (that is to say, a subverting force) are yet to be attained. They would reside in modes of work and pleasure, of thought and behavior, in a technology and in a natural environment which express the aesthetic ethos of socialism. Then, art may have lost its privileged, and segregated, dominion over the imagination, the beautiful, the dream. This may be the future, but the future ingresses into the present: in its negativity, the desublimating art and anti-art of today “anticipate” a stage where society’s capacity to produce may be akin to the creative capacity of art, and the construction of the world of art akin to the reconstruction of the real world – union of liberating art and liberating technology. By virtue of this anticipation, the disorderly, uncivil, farcical, artistic desublimation of culture constitutes an essential element of radical politics: of the subverting forces in transition.
3 – Subverting Forces – in Transition
The notion of “aesthetic form” as the Form of a free society would indeed mean reversing the development of socialism from scientific to utopian unless we can point to certain tendencies in the infrastructure of advanced industrial society which may give this notion a realistic content. We have repeatedly referred to such tendencies: first of all the growing technological character of the process of production, with the reduction of the required physical energy and its replacement by mental energy – dematerialization of labor. At the same time, an increasingly automated machine system, no longer used as the system of exploitation, would allow that “distantiation” of the laborer from the instruments of production which Marx foresaw at the end of capitalism: the workers would cease to be the “principal agents” of material production, and become its “supervisors and regulators” – the emergence of a free subject within the realm of necessity. Already today, the achievements of science and technology permit the play of the productive imagination: experimentation with the possibilities of form and matter hitherto enclosed in the density of unmastered nature; the technical transformation of nature tends to make things lighter, easier, prettier – the loosening up of reification. The material becomes increasingly susceptible and subject to aesthetic forms, which enhance its exchange value (the artistic, modernistic banks, office buildings, kitchens, salesrooms, and salespeople, etc.). And within the framework of capitalism, the tremendous growth in the productivity of labor enforces the ever-enlarged production of “luxuries”: wasteful in the armament industry, and in the marketing of gadgets, devices, trimmings, status symbols.
This same trend of production and consumption, which makes for the affluence and attraction of advanced capitalism, makes for the perpetuation of the struggle for existence, for the increasing necessity to produce and consume the non-necessary: the growth of the so-called “discretionary income” in the United States indicates the extent to which income earned is spent on other than “basic needs.” Former luxuries become basic needs, a normal development which, under corporate capitalism, extends the competitive business of living to newly created needs and satisfactions. The fantastic output of all sorts of things and services defies the imagination, while restricting and distorting it in the commodity form, through which capitalist production enlarges its hold over human existence. And yet, precisely through the spread of this commodity form, the repressive social morality which sustains the system is being weakened. The obvious contradiction between the liberating possibilities of the technological transformation of the world, the light and free life on the one hand and the intensification of the struggle for existence on the other, generates among the underlying population that diffused aggressiveness which, unless steered to hate and fight the alleged national enemy, hits upon any suitable target: white or black, native or foreigner, Jew or Christian, rich or poor.
This is the aggressiveness of those with the mutilated experience, with the false consciousness and the false needs, the victims of repression who, for their living, depend on the repressive society and repress the alternative. Their violence is that of the Establishment and takes as targets figures which, rightly or wrongly, seem to be different, and to represent an alternative.
But while the image of the libertarian potential of advanced industrial society is repressed (and hated) by the managers of repression and their consumers, it motivates the radical opposition and gives it its strange unorthodox character. Very different from the revolution at previous stages of history, this opposition is directed against the totality of a well-functioning, prosperous society – a protest against its Form – the commodity form of men and things, against the imposition of false values and a false morality. This new consciousness and the instinctual rebellion isolate such opposition from the masses and from the majority of organized labor, the integrated majority, and make for the concentration of radical politics in active minorities, mainly among the young middle-class intelligentsia, and among the ghetto populations. Here, prior to all political strategy and organization, liberation becomes a vital, “biological” need.
It is of course nonsense to say that middle-class opposition is replacing the proletariat as the revolutionary class, and that the Lumpenproletariat is becoming a radical political force. What is happening is the formation of still relatively small and weakly organized (often disorganized) groups which, by virtue of their consciousness and their needs, function as potential catalysts of rebellion within the majorities to which, by their class origin, they belong. In this sense, the militant intelligentsia has indeed cut itself loose from the middle classes, and the ghetto population from the organized working class. But by that token they do not think and act in a vacuum: their consciousness and their goals make them representatives of the very real common interest of the oppressed. As against the rule of class and national interests which suppress this common interest, the revolt against the old societies is truly international: emergence of a new, spontaneous solidarity. This struggle is a far cry from the ideal of humanism and humanitas; it is the struggle for life – life not as masters and not as slaves, but as men and women.
For Marxian theory, the location (or rather contraction) of the opposition in certain middle-class strata and in the ghetto population appears as an intolerable deviation – as does the emphasis on biological and aesthetic needs: regression to bourgeois or, even worse, aristocratic, ideologies. But, in the advanced monopoly-capitalist countries, the displacement of the opposition (from the organized industrial working classes to militant minorities) is caused by the internal development of the society; and the theoretical “deviation” only reflects this development. What appears as a surface phenomenon is indicative of basic tendencies which suggest not only different prospects of change, but also a depth and extent of change far beyond the expectations of traditional socialist theory. Under this aspect, the displacement of the negating forces from their traditional base among the underlying population, rather than being a sign of the weakness of the opposition against the integrating power of advanced capitalism, may well be the slow formation of a new base, bringing to the fore the new historical Subject of change, responding to the new objective conditions, with qualitatively different needs and aspirations. And on this base (probably intermittent and preliminary) goals and strategies take shape which reexamine the concepts of democratic-parliamentary as well as of revolutionary transformation.
The modifications in the structure of capitalism alter the basis for the development and organization of potentially revolutionary forces. Where the traditional laboring classes cease to be the “gravediggers” of capitalism, this function remains, as it were, suspended, and the political efforts toward change remain “tentative,” preparatory not only in a temporal but also in a structural sense. This means that the “addressees” as well as the immediate goals and occasions of action will he determined by the shifting situation rather than by a theoretically well-founded and elaborated strategy. This determinism, direct consequence of the strength of the system and the diffusion of the opposition, also implies a shift of emphasis toward “subjective factors”: the development of awareness and needs assumes primary importance. Under total capitalist administration and introjection, the social determination of consciousness is all but complete and immediate: direct implantation of the latter into the former. Under these circumstances, radical change in consciousness is the beginning, the first step in changing social existence: emergence of the new Subject. Historically, it is again the period of enlightenment prior to material change – a period of education, but education which turns into praxis: demonstration, confrontation, rebellion.
The radical transformation of a social system still depends on the class which constitutes the human base of the process of production. In the advanced capitalist countries, this is the industrial working class. The changes in the composition of this class, and the extent of its integration into the system alter, not the potential but the actual political role of labor. Revolutionary class “in-itself” but not “for-itself,” objectively but not subjectively, its radicalization will depend on catalysts outside its ranks. The development of a radical political consciousness among the masses is conceivable only if and when the economic stability and the social cohesion of the system begin to weaken. It was the traditional role of the Marxist-Leninist party to prepare the ground for this development. The stabilizing and integrating power of advanced capitalism, and the requirements of “peaceful coexistence,” forced this party to “parliamentarize” itself, to integrate itself into the bourgeois-democratic process, and to concentrate on economic demands, thereby inhibiting rather than promoting the growth of a radical political consciousness. Where the latter broke through the party and trade union apparatus, it happened under the impact of “outside” forces – mainly from among the intelligentsia; the apparatus only followed suit when the movement gained momentum, and in order to regain control of it.
No matter how rational this strategy may be, no matter how sensible the desperate effort to preserve strength in the face of the sustained power of corporate capitalism, the strategy testifies to the “passivity” of the industrial working classes, to the degree of their integration it testifies to the facts which the official theory so vehemently denies. Under the conditions of integration, the new political consciousness of the vital need for radical change emerges among social groups which, on objective grounds, are (relatively) free from the integrating, conservative interests and aspirations, free for the radical transvaluation of values. Without losing its historical role as the basic force of transformation, the working class, in the period of stabilization, assumes a stabilizing, conservative function; and the catalysts of transformation operate “from without.”
This tendency is strengthened by the changing composition of the working class. The declining proportion of blue collar labor, the increasing number and importance of white collar employees, technicians, engineers, and specialists, divides the class. This means that precisely those strata of the working class which bore, and still bear, the brunt of brute exploitation will perform a gradually diminishing function in the process of production. The intelligentsia obtains an increasingly decisive role in this process – an instrumentalist intelligentsia, but intelligentsia nevertheless. This “new working class,” by virtue of its position, could disrupt, reorganize, and redirect the mode and relationships of production. However, they have neither the interest nor the vital need to do so: they are well integrated and well rewarded. To be sure, monopolistic competition and the race for intensifying the productivity of labor may enforce technological changes which may come into conflict with still prevailing policies and forms of private capitalist enterprise, and these changes may then lead to a technocratic reorganization of large sectors of the society (even of its culture and ideology). But it is not clear why they would lead to an abolition of the capitalist system, of the subjugation of the underlying population to the apparatus of profitable production for particular interests. Such a qualitative change would presuppose the control and redirection of the productive apparatus by groups with needs and goals very different from those of the technocrats.
Herbert Marcuse was born on July 19, 1898 in Berlin. His mother was born Gertrud Kreslawsky and his father was a well-off businessman, Carl Marcuse. According to Marcuse, his childhood was that of a typical German upper-middle class youth whose Jewish family was well integrated into German society (Kellner 1984: 13). Marcuse's formal education began at the Mommsen Gymnasium and continued at the Kaiserin-Augusta Gymnasium in Charlottenburg from 1911–1916. In 1916 Marcuse was called to military duty. It was in the military where his political education began, although during this period his political involvement was brief. The experience of war and the German Revolution led Marcuse to a study of Marxism as he tried to understand “the dynamics of capitalism and imperialism, as well as the failure of the German Revolution” (Kellner 1984: 17). Marcuse also wanted to learn more about socialism and the Marxian theory of revolution so that he may understand his own inability to identify with any of the major Left parties at that time (Kellner 1984: 17). However, this study of Marxism would be brief. In 1918 Marcuse was released from military service.
In 1919 he entered Humbolt University in Berlin and took courses for four semesters. In 1920 he transferred to Freiburg to concentrate on German literature and to take courses in philosophy, politics, and economics. This period of study culminated in a doctoral dissertation entitled Der deutsche Künstlerroman (The German Artist-Novel), which was accepted in 1922 (Kellner 1984: 18). This work would be the first in a life-long engagement with aesthetics for Marcuse.
After the acceptance of his dissertation Marcuse returned to Berlin where “his father provided him with an apartment and a share in a publishing and antiquarian book business” (Wiggershaus 1994: 96). Marcuse worked mainly as a catalogue researcher and bibliographer, and published a Schiller bibliography in 1925 (Kellner 1984: 32–33). In 1924 Marcuse married his first wife, Sophie.
While in Berlin Marcuse began reading Martin Heidegger's newly published Being and Time with a friend in 1927. Although Marcuse was already a student of philosophy, his interest in philosophy had remained second to his interest in German literature up to this point. The excitement caused by Being and Time would lead Marcuse to a life-long serious engagement with philosophy. According to Douglas Kellner, this move from a primary concern with art to a deeper engagement with philosophy suggests that Marcuse was a bit skeptical about the power of art as a “cognitive source of knowledge and as an instrument of personal liberation and social change” (Kellner 1984: 36–37). The impact of Heidegger was so great that Marcuse returned to Freiburg in 1928 to study philosophy with Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. While in Freiburg Marcuse worked as Heidegger's assistant and began work on his second dissertation, Hegel's Ontologie und die Grundlegung einer Theorie der Geschichtlichkeit (Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity) (1932 ). Although this dissertation was never approved by Heidegger (and according to Marcuse, perhaps not read) it was published in 1932.
In 1932 Marcuse and Heidegger parted ways due to the latter's involvement with the Nazi Party. As the Nazis soared to power and anti-Semitism began to spread it became clear to Marcuse that he “would never be able to qualify for a professorship under the Nazi regime” (Kellner 1984: 92). Given his situation, Marcuse began to inquire about employment with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. After an interview, a letter of support from Edmund Husserl, and a word of support from a member of the Institute (Leo Lowenthal) Marcuse was hired (Wiggershaus 1994: 104; Kellner 1984: 92)
Due to Nazi activity, Marcuse never actually worked in Frankfurt. Anticipating the fascist takeover, the Institute deposited their endowment in Holland. A branch office was established in Geneva where Marcuse began his work with the Institute. He would go to Paris for a short time and then finally in July 1934 to New York. From 1934–1942 Marcuse worked at the Institute's branch at Columbia University. In 1942 he moved to Washington D.C. to work first with the Office of War Information and then with the Office of Strategic Services. Later Marcuse would teach at Brandeis University and then the University of California, San Diego. He became a United States citizen in 1940 and remained in the United States until his death in 1979.
2. The Aesthetic Dimension
The bookends of Marcuse's literary, philosophical, and political life are both works on aesthetics. In 1922 he completed a doctoral dissertation entitled Der deutsche Künstlerroman (The German Artist-Novel). In 1978, one year before his death he published The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward A Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Between these two works are several small works on aesthetics. However, even the works that do not deal directly with aesthetics still contain (we might say) an aesthetic dimension. It is not possible to discuss the role of aesthetics in all of Marcuse's works. Therefore, the role of aesthetics in Marcuse's critical theory in general will be discussed. There are three key works on aesthetics which were written at different times that reveal the overall point of Marcuse's aesthetic theory.
Even in his youth, Marcuse had a love for the classics of German and world literature (Marcuse 2007a: 4). After serving military duty and after his brief period of political engagement Marcuse returned to his literary studies. However, in the aftermath of his reading of Marxism, Marcuse's literary studies had a decisive political orientation. He was interested in the revolutionary and transformative function of art.
This turn to art and literature was a return to an earlier love with a new mission. This new mission was of course inspired by his encounter with Marxism and its crisis. The turn toward literature was also a quest for revolutionary subjectivity. Put another way, from the beginning to the end of his literary career Marcuse looked for spaces of a critical consciousness that had not been completely whittled down by the oppressive and repressive forces of capitalism. Revolution and social change demands a space for thought and action that make resistance to the status quo possible. Well before he began to use the term “the Great Refusal”, he was in search of such.
In his dissertation of 1922, The German Artist-Novel, the artist represents a form of radical subjectivity. In this work Marcuse makes a distinction between epic poetry and the novel. Epic poetry deals with the origin and development of a people and culture while the novel does not focus on the form of life of a people and their development, but rather, on a sense of longing and striving (Marcuse 2007a: 72). The novel indicates alienation from social life. The details of Marcuse's argument will not be addressed here. The point is to show that there is a certain orientation of thought in Marcuse's 1922 dissertation that is motivated by his encounter with Marxism and will stay with him as his project becomes more philosophical. In short, the artist experiences a gap between the ideal and the real. This ability to entertain, at least theoretically, an ideal form of existence for humanity, while at the same time living in far less than ideal conditions produces a sense of alienation in the artist. This alienation becomes the catalyst for social change. This function of art stays with Marcuse and will be developed further as he engages psychoanalysis and philosophy.
As a dialectical thinker, Marcuse was also able to see both sides of the coin. That is, while art embodied revolutionary potential, it was also produced, interpreted, and distributed in a repressive society. In an oppressive/repressive society the forces of liberation and the forces of domination do not develop in isolation from each other. Instead, they develop in a dialectical relationship where one produces the conditions for the other. This can be seen throughout almost all of Marcuse's writings and will be pointed out at different points in this essay. The task here is to take a look at how this dialectic of liberation and domination occurs within the context of Marcuse's aesthetic theory. This should not be taken to mean that there will never be a point in time when human beings are liberated from the forces of domination. This simply means that if an individual group seeks liberation, their analysis or critique of society must come to terms with how things actually work at that moment in that society if any form of liberation is possible. As Marcuse saw it, there is a form of ideology that serves domination and creates the conditions for liberation at the same time. This will be discussed later. Also, there is a form of liberation that lends itself to be co-opted by the forces of domination.
Just as art embodied the potential for liberation and the formation of radical subjectivity, it was also capable of being taken up by systems of domination and used to further or maintain domination. This is the theme of Marcuse's 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture”. Culture, which is the domain of art, develops in tension with the overall structure of a given society. The values and ideal produced by culture calls for the transcending of oppressive social reality. Culture separates itself from the social order. That is, the social realm or civilization is characterized by labor, the working day, the realm of necessity, operational thought, etc (Marcuse 1965: 16). This is the realm of real material and social relations as well as the struggle for existence. The cultural realm or civilization is characterized by intellectual work, leisure, non-operational thought, freedom, (Marcuse 1965: 16). The freedom to think and reflect that is made possible at the level of culture makes it possible to construct value and ideals that pose a challenge to the social order. This is the emancipatory function of art. However, art itself does not bring about liberation it must be translated into political activity. Nevertheless, art is important here because it opens up the space for thinking that may then produce revolution.
The separation between culture and society does not suggest a flight from social reality. Instead, it represents an alien or critical space within social reality. The ideals produced by culture must work within society as transformative ideas. In “The Affirmative Character of Culture” Marcuse, in good dialectical fashion, shows how culture separates itself from society or civilization and creates the space for critical thought and social change but then succumbs to the oppressive demands of bourgeois society. It does this by “separating ‘culture’ from the everyday world” (Marcuse 2007a: 23). In affirmative culture art becomes the object of spiritual contemplation. The demand for happiness in the real world is abandoned for an internal form of happiness, the happiness of the soul. Hence, bourgeois culture creates an interior of the human being where the highest ideals of culture can be realized. This inner transformation does not demand an external transformation of the real world and its material conditions.
In such a society the cultivation of the soul becomes an important part of one's education. The belief that the soul is more important than the body and material needs leads to political resignation insofar as freedom becomes internal. “The soul takes flight at the hard truth of theory, which points up the necessity of changing as impoverished form of existence” (Marcuse 2007b: 222). Hence, the soul accepts the facts of its material existence without fighting to change these facts. Affirmative culture with its idea of the soul has used art to put radical subjectivity under erasure.
In his last book The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) Marcuse continues his attempt to rescue the radical transformative nature of art. In this text he takes a polemical stance against the problematic interpretation of the function of art by orthodox Marxists. These Marxists claimed that only proletarian art could be revolutionary. Marcuse attempts to establish the revolutionary potential of all art by establishing the autonomy of authentic art. Marcuse states: “It seems that art as art expresses a truth, an experience, a necessity which, although not in the domain of radical praxis, are nevertheless essential components of revolution” (Marcuse 1978: 1). It is the experience that art tries to express that Marcuse will focus on and it is this which separates him from orthodox Marxist.
It must be remembered that for Marcuse and the Frankfurt School there was no evidence that the proletariat would rise up against their oppressors. In addition to developing theories that disclosed the social and psychological mechanisms at work in society that made the proletariat complicit in their own domination, Marcuse saw possibilities for revolution in multiple places. Some of this will be discussed later. The student revolts of the 1960s confirmed much of the direction of Marcuse's critical theory form early on. That is, the need for social change includes class struggle but cannot be reduced to class struggle. There is a multiplicity of social groups in our society that seek social change for various reasons. There are multiple forms of oppression and repression that make revolution desirable. Hence, the form of art produced, and its revolutionary vision may be determined by a multiplicity of oppressed/repressed subject positions.
Orthodox Marxism focused on the proletariat by excluding all other possible sites for revolution. For this reason, Orthodox Marxism itself becomes a form of ideology and produces a reified state of affairs. In orthodox Marxist aesthetics
The subjectivity of individuals, their own consciousness and unconscious tends to be dissolved into class consciousness. Thereby, a major prerequisite of revolution is minimized, namely, the fact that the need for radical change must be rooted in the subjectivity of individuals themselves, in their intelligence, and their passions, their drives and their goals. (Marcuse 1978: 3–4)
In orthodox Marxism, radical subjectivity was reduced to one social group, the proletariat. Marcuse greatly expands the space where radical subjectivity can emerge. Marcuse argues that “liberating subjectivity constitutes itself in the inner history of the individuals” (Marcuse 1978: 5). Each subject as distinct from other subjects represents a particular subject position. For example; white female, working class, mother of two, born in the mid-west, etc. However, with each distinct feature of the individual subject corresponds a structural position. That is, in a given society gender, race, class, level of education etc, are interpreted in certain ways. Experiences and the opportunities provided by them are often affected by subject and structural position and produce what Marcuse calls “the inner history of the individual” (Marcuse 1978: 5).
Given that there are many subject positions that are positions of repression and dehumanization, radical subjectivity and art may come from any of these positions. Economic class is just one structural position among many. Hence, it is not only the proletariat who may have an interest in social change.
3. The Search for a Philosophical Foundation for Marxism and the Radical Subject
3.1 Phenomenological Marxism
Inspired by his reading of Heidegger's Being and Time, and having already been influenced by Marxism during his military days, Marcuse goes to Freiberg to study with Heidegger in 1928. Between 1928 and 1932 he attempts to develop what has been called Heideggerian or phenomenological Marxism. This project was Marcuse response to what has been called the “crisis of Marxism.”
By the early 20th century it appeared to be the case that the proletarian revolution predicted by Marx was not going to happen. Europe had witnessed several failed attempts at a revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not lead by the proletariat and it simply produced a different form of totalitarianism.
Marcuse undoubtedly accepted Rosa Luxemburg's trenchant critique of the authoritarian implications of Lenin's vanguardism. In fact, most European socialists viewed Lenin's voluntarism as inappropriate for Western and Central Europe, where a more advanced and experienced proletariat existed. (Marcuse 2005: xiv)
This situation produced the political crisis of Marxism.
The political crisis of Marxism is entangled with its epistemological crisis (Marcuse 2005: xiv). The epistemological crisis is the result of the scientific reductionism of Marxism which was encouraged by Engels and Karl Kautsky (Marcuse 2005: xiv). So-called scientific Marxism is a non-philosophical, mechanistic form of Marxist theory that teaches the inevitable, automatic collapse of capitalism. This form of theory ends up being non-revolutionary to the extent that the “subjective factor of working class consciousness is down played” (Marcuse 2005: xiv). The Second International produced a form of positivism that eliminated the dialectical approach of Marxism and put the role of human subjectivity under erasure. That is, if the collapse of capitalism was inevitable because of the effects of certain natural laws and not due to the conscious, intentional efforts of the proletariat then there is no need to work toward the development of revolutionary consciousness.
Marcuse's entire project can be seen as an attempt to rescue radical, socially transformative subjectivity. He gravitates toward Marxism because Marxism is an attempt to rescue subjectivity or humanity from the reifying, oppressive forces of capitalism. Unfortunately, the Marxism of the Second International also put human subjectivity under erasure as this form of Marxism becomes mechanistic in nature. It is in this context, where subjectivity, human agency, is being whittled down that Marcuse turns to Heidegger for a possible solution. Marcuse saw in Marx and Heidegger “a demand for radical action” (Wolin 2001: 146).
For Marx, it took the form of “praxis,” “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” On the basis of authentic temporality, Dasein, too, demanded a radical response to the realities of alienated social existence. (Wolin 2001: 147)
For Marcuse, radical action was needed to overcome the oppressive, repressive, reified structure of advanced industrial society. He saw common ground between Marx and Heidegger regarding this problem. At this point in his career, Marcuse read the oppressive structure of advanced industrial society through three lenses, the Marxian lenses of alienation, The Lukácsian lenses of reification, and the Heideggerian lenses of inauthenticity. Although Marx's 1844 Manuscripts where there is a discussion of alienation were not yet available to Marcuse when he went to Freiburg, Marx's theory of alienation is implicit in various places in volume one of Capital where he discusses the reduction of social relations between persons to the relations between things while the relations between things are treated as social relations. [example]
“Thus, Marcuse believed that Heidegger's Being and Time represented a potentially valuable ally in the struggle against the reified social continuum of advanced industrial society. He conjectured that Heidegger's philosophy of existence possessed the conceptual means required to counteract an inverted social world in which, according to Marx, ”social relations between men assume… the fantastic form of a relation between things.“ In part, Marcuse read Heidegger's philosophy as an ontologically veiled critique of reification: an indictment of the way in which oppressive social circumstances militate against the possibility of human self-realization. It seemed that, like the critical Marxists Lukács and Korsch, Heidegger strove to surmount the fetishization of appearances that characterized the shadow-world of bourgeois immediacy. Like Lukács and Korsch, in Being and Time Heidegger strove concertedly to break with the deterministic worldview of bourgeois science, in which human being or Dasein was degraded to the status of a ”thing among things.“ After all, this was the main point behind Heidegger's critique of Vorhandenheit or being present-at-hand as a mode of inauthenticity” (Marcuse 2005: xiv–xv).
Marcuse's reading of Marx, Heidegger, Lukács, Korsch and even Max Weber is based on his quest for radical or revolutionary subjectivity. Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse saw western society as moving in the direction of a totally administered society. His later notion of one-dimensionality is developed via his critique of such a society. However, he eventually became disillusioned with Heidegger.
Even while under Heidegger's influence Marcuse was never a mere Heideggerian. He recognized early on that Heidegger's philosophy had certain limitations. He would eventually discover that Heidegger's philosophy was not all that concrete. While Heidegger's philosophy explicated the ontological structure of Dasein in its everydayness, it never dwelled at the ontic level. At the ontological level Heidegger merely examined the fundamental structures of Dasein. That is, Dasein in general carries out its life within a certain universal structure which is constituted by modes of existence such as fallenness, idle talk, boredom, care, being toward death, etc. What has been disclosed here are mere universal conditions or modes of existence in which Dasein happens and experiences happenings. However, these modes of existence are experienced in different ways, at different times, and with different levels of intensity by different individuals.
At the end of the day, Marcuse sees that Heidegger avoids the type of analyses that would reveal systems of oppression and domination from which many human beings suffer. The modes of existence for Dasein have a social, historical, and political context that shape the way that they are experienced. For example, Dasein has a race, gender, class, etc. These particular features come with specific social interpretations which affect Dasein's life's prospects. According to Marcuse, Heidegger's Dasein is a sociologically and biologically neutral category (Marcuse 2005: 167). Heidegger gives no account of the multiple forms of oppression and domination present in advanced industrial societies nor the way that individuals respond to these forms of oppression and domination. In a 1977 interview conducted by Frederick A. Olafson Marcuse raises the following criticism of Heidegger:
How does the individual situate himself and see himself in capitalism—at a certain stage of capitalism, under socialism, as a member of this or that class, and so on? This entire dimension is absent. To be sure, Dasein is constituted in historicity, but Heidegger focuses on individuals purged of the hidden and not so hidden injuries of their class, their work, their recreation, purged of the injuries they suffer from their society. There is no trace of the daily rebellion, of the striving for liberation. The Man (the anonymous anyone) is no substitute for the social reality (Marcuse 2005: 169)
Hence, Heidegger's concrete philosophy is not so concrete as he defines human beings and their historicity in such a way that omits the real, concrete, struggles in which social actors find themselves. In the same interview quoted above, Marcuse claims that he and others realized that “Heidegger's concreteness was to a great extent a phony, false concreteness,” removed from reality (Marcuse 2005: 166)
We can see now that the very thing that drew Marcuse to Heidegger's philosophy is missing. Heidegger's philosophy failed to provide Marcuse with a concrete philosophical foundation for Marxism as well as a theory of the radical act or radical subjectivity. Heidegger's brief affiliation with the Nazi party made it easy for Marcuse to leave Heidegger in 1932. This move was also made easy by the publication of Marx's 1844 Manuscripts first published in 1932.
Although Marcuse breaks with Heidegger in 1932, for some scholars the break is not all that clear. Martin Jay claims that when Marcuse joined the Institute the influence of Horkheimer was so great that Marcuse “abandoned Heidegger's vocabulary, as the impact of phenomenology on his thinking began to recede” (Jay 1973: 76). However, in a letter to Horkheimer on May 13, 1935 Adorno strongly suggests that Marcuse was still a Heideggerian (Marcuse/Kellner 1998: 16 n.22). One must, however, maintain some level of suspicion of Adorno's claim since he and Marcuse were engaged in competition for Horkheimer's favor. Nevertheless, the question of Marcuse's Heideggerianism is still of interests for Marcuse scholars. For example; Richard Wolin writes: “In Marcuse's postwar writings, the Heideggerian dimension is muted but nevertheless traceable” (Wolin 2001: 167).
Does Marcuse continue to employ Heideggerian ideas in a new language? For example; is Marcuse's critique of one-dimensionality nothing more than a Heideggerian critique of inauthenticity? Both terms refer to “a mass society of blind conformity” (Wolin 2001: 168). Wolin also raises the question of parallels between Heidegger's ontological elitism and Marcuse's notion of an “educational dictatorship” (Wolin 2001: 172). The issue of an educational dictatorship occurs in Eros and Civilization (1955) as well as in “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) and reflects Marcuse's pessimism about the development of radical consciousness in the working class. However, the problem of some form of intellectual elitism is not only found in Heidegger but in Marxism itself. One need only think about Lenin's notion of the Vanguard. However, whether the source be Heidegger or certain Marxists, the wave toward elitism, in one form or another, remains a problem in Marcuse's work.
3.2 Philosophical Anthropology and Radical Subjectivity:
In 1932 Marcuse published one of the first reviews of the newly published 1844 Manuscripts entitled “Neue Quellen zur Grundlegung des historischen Materialismus” (New Sources on the Foundation of Historical Materialism), According to Marcuse, the 1844 Manuscripts would accomplish two things.
These manuscripts could put the discussion about the origins and original meaning of historical materialism, and the entire theory of “scientific socialism,” on a new footing. They also make it possible to pose the question of the actual connections between Marx and Hegel in a more fruitful way. (Wolin 2005: 86)
However, these manuscripts also provided Marcuse with the necessary theoretical tools needed for developing a critical, philosophical anthropology that would aid him in the development of his own brand of critical theory.
In this context “anthropology” does not refer to the study of past cultures etc, as it often does in the United States. Instead, it refers to the German idea of anthropology which is more of a philosophical and social scientific examination of human nature. The 1844 Manuscripts are important for Marcuse because in them Marx provides a philosophical foundation for his later critique of political economy as well as an action-theoretic, philosophical anthropology. Philosophical categories such as labor, objectification, alienation, sublation, property, etc, all explored in Hegel's philosophy was scrutinized dialectically by Marx (Kellner 1984: 79).
In a nutshell, what Marcuse sees in the 1844 Manuscripts is an analysis of the social conditions for a communist revolution. The revolution itself requires the development of radical subjectivity. Radical subjectivity refers to the development of a form of self-consciousness that finds present social and economic conditions intolerable. The radical act is a refusal of these conditions and an orientation toward social transformation. To make sense of Marcuse's position we must ask what are these intolerable conditions and how are they produced? Philosophical anthropology and radical subjectivity are connected here insofar as the intolerable conditions that must be overcome by revolution or the radical act represent social distortions of the human essence. It is Marx and Hegel who provided Marcuse with a philosophical anthropology that discloses human essence and the social mechanisms by which it is distorted. The key category here is that of “alienation” which cannot be understood without examining the role of labor and objectification.
According to Marcuse, Hegel, and Marx, human beings develop through a self-formative process wherein the external world (nature) is appropriated and transformed according to human needs. Labor is one of the main areas for this self-formative activity. The idea that labor is an essential part of a self-formative process is what distinguishes Marx from the classical economists such as Smith, Ricardo, etc. In classical economics, labor is simply the means by which individuals make provisions for themselves and their families. In these theories labor is not viewed as that activity by which the human subject is constituted. The Marxian view of labor as a self-formative process is what makes possible the Marxian theory of alienation and revolution.
Marcuse argues that in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx shows how the role of labor as a self-realization or self-formative process gets inverted. Instead of having his or her subjectivity affirmed the individual becomes an object that is now shaped by external, alien forces. Hence, Marx's theory makes a transition from an examination of the self-formative process of labor to a critique of the forms of alienation caused by the historical facticity of capitalism. Within the historical facticity of capitalism
this fact appears as the total inversion and concealment of what critique had defined as the essence of man and human labor. Labor is not “free activity” or the universal and free self-realization of man, but his enslavement and loss of reality. The worker is not man in the totality of his life-expression, but something unessential [ein Unwesen], the purely physical subject of “abstract” activity. The objects of labor are not expressions and confirmations of the human reality of the worker, but alien things, belonging to someone other than the worker—“commodities.” (Marcuse 2005: 104)
Marcuse will spend the rest of his life carrying out the investigations began in these early works. What distinguishes his project from Marx's is the way in which each will deal with the problem of concealment mentioned in the above quote. Marx will develop two different but related approaches. His critique of political economy is an attempt to disclose the inner logic of capitalism (how it works) as well as the contradictions that will lead to the collapse of capitalism. The second approach is to work out a theory of revolution which presupposes the awakening of self-consciousness in the working class. In both approaches concealment will give way to disclosure and social transformation. We saw earlier that Marx's predictions did not come true on either account. This failure in part led to what has been called the crisis of Marxism to which the birth of the Frankfurt School was a response. Marcuse's work will go through many phases as he tries to unlock the key to revolutionary action. The next key move for him is to engage in a deeper study of Hegel as a source for critical social theory.
3.3 Negative (Dialectical) Thinking and Social Change:
In 1941 Marcuse's studies of Marx and Hegel culminated in a book entitled Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941 ). This book accomplished several things. First, it disclosed the role of Hegel's most critical, revolutionary, and emancipatory concepts in the development of Marx's critical philosophy. Secondly, it rescued Hegel from the charge that his social and political philosophy was conservative and legitimated the oppressive Prussian state. The third great accomplishment, or at least goal, embodies the first two accomplishments and is perhaps the most important for the formation of Marcuse's form of critical theory. The Hegelian/Marxian notion of dialectic or what Marcuse will call negative thinking becomes a central element in Marcuse's critical theory. In part, Reason and Revolution is not an attempt to rescue Hegel, but rather, it is an attempt to rescue dialectical or negative thinking. Marcuse makes this clear in a new preface to the 1960 edition of the book. The new preface entitled “A Note on Dialectic” can actually stand on its own as a guide to reading and understanding Marcuse. Marcuse begins with the claim that this book is an attempt to rescue a form of thinking or a mental faculty which is in danger of being obliterated (Marcuse 1960: vii).
The purpose of dialectical or negative thinking is to expose and then overcome by revolutionary action the contradictions by which advanced industrial societies are constituted. The problem of concealment occurs here because not only does society produce contradictions and the forms of domination that come with them, it also produces the social and psychological mechanisms that conceal these contradictions. An example of a social contradiction is the co-existence of the growth of national wealth and poverty at the same time. Those who own, control, and influence the means of production (the minority) grow richer while the workers (the minority) grow poorer. The idea that the unbridled attempt by the rich to become richer will somehow allow their wealth to trickle down so that all will benefit has been proven false as the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. However, the trickle down ideology is still very effective. The capitalist belief that unbridled competition is good for everyone conceals the goal of purging society of competition by allowing large corporations to buy out their competition.
In this situation, the worker, through her labor does not become a free and rational subject, but rather, an object to be used by the economic system, a system that is a human creation, but over which the worker has no control. In the capitalist system, the worker is used as an object for the sake of production while not reaping the full benefits of production. In such a situation the worker is not able to actualize his or her potential as a free and rational human being but is instead reduced to a life of toil for the sake of survival. The existence of the worker puts under erasure his or her essence. The task of dialectical thinking is to bring this situation to consciousness. Once this situation is brought to consciousness it can be resolved through revolutionary practice. Thus, Douglas Kellner writes:
The central concepts presented are precisely those of the book's title, “reason” and “revolution”. Reason distinguishes between existence and essence through conceptualizing unrealized potentialities, norms and ideals that are to be realized in social practice. If social conditions prevent their realization, reason calls for revolution. (Kellner 1984: 131)
Marcuse's concept of essence is not transcendental but historical. That is, there is no human essence apart from historical context. Within the context of historical happening, within material existence, what the human being could potentially be is already present. For example, it seems logical to assert that no human being would want to spend his or her entire life engaged in alienating labor just to remain in poverty. Nevertheless, this is precisely the situation in which many human beings find themselves. However, essence is embedded in this historical appearance insofar as the potential for the worker to be free from exploitation and alienating toil is present as a real possibility that need only be actualized. In the society wherein the worker works there is enough wealth (produced by the worker) to free the worker of endless toil. In an essay entitled “The Concept of Essence” Marcuse writes: “Materialist theory thus transcends the given state of fact and moves toward a different potentiality, proceeding from immediate appearance to the essence that appears in it. But here appearance and essence become members of a real antithesis arising from the particular historical structure of the social process of life” (Marcuse 1968b: 67).
The above passage is crucial for understanding the theme of Reason and Revolution and Marcuse's famous later work One-Dimensional Man (1964) (which will be discussed later). His concept of essence is not static or transcendental. Essence presents itself as the possibility of a free non-alienating, non-repressive form of life within a particular historical, social/political structure. Appearance (the present order of things) is in contradiction to the very possibilities that are produced by the present social reality. For example, the capitalist mode of production has made it possible for all members of our society to live non-alienating and fruitful lives. However, many are still in poverty. Dialectical or negative thinking sees this contradiction and attempts to negate such circumstances.
The concept of negation is best understood by distinguishing between two levels of negation in capitalist societies. The concept of negation employed by Marcuse is actually a critical response to a prior form of negation. This prior form of negation will be referred to as negation1 and the response to it as negation2. Negation1 is the negation of human essence or freedom by an oppressive, repressive socio/economic system. Here the potential for liberation, self-development, self-determination, the good life, etc are all put under erasure by various forms of domination. Hence, the human individual is negated. Negation2 refers to the development of critical, revolutionary consciousness that seeks to negate these oppressive social structures. The goal of negation2 is liberation (Farr 2009: 85–86).
There are many other features of Reason and Revolution that are worth discussing here, especially Marcuse's critique of positivism. However, these issues will come up again in other works that will be discussed later. Suffice it to say that at this point Marcuse presents negative thinking as an alternative to what he will later call one-dimensional thinking. It is through negative thinking and revolution that liberation becomes possible. In the next section we will examine another possibility for liberation.
4. Psychoanalysis and Utopian Vision:
4.1 The Historical and Social Nature of Human Drives
Psychoanalysis was an essential theoretical tool for the Frankfurt School from the beginning. When Max Horkheimer took over as director in 1931 he had already been influenced by psychoanalysis (Abromeit 2011: 192–195). Soon after becoming director he would bring Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on board. The initial goal was to use psychoanalytic theory to understand the psyche of the working class. That is, the goal was to understand why those who would benefit most from a revolution of social change seemed to resist it. Marcuse does not engage psychoanalysis until later. Although he will make the same use of psychoanalysis as his colleagues, Marcuse also develops his own unique approach to and interpretation of psychoanalytic theory. While Eros and Civilization is a work on Freud and is replete with the language of psychoanalysis, it is as Marxian as it is Freudian. The name Marx will not be mentioned in the text, and rarely will Marxian categories be introduced. Nevertheless, the Freudian categories are bent toward a Marxist/Marxian type of analysis of advanced industrial societies.
Although Marcuse had read Freud in the 1920s and 1930s, his serious engagement did not begin until the 1950s. Marcuse was invited to give a series of lectures in 1950–51 by the Washington School of Psychiatry. The result of this engagement was one of Marcuse's most famous books, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Marcuse's book is a response to the pessimism of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1930 ). Freud's book paints a bleak picture of the evolution of civilization as the evolution of greater and greater repression from which there seems to be no escape. The death and life instincts are engaged in a battle for dominance with no clear winner in sight. According to Marcuse, Freud fails to develop the emancipatory possibility of his own theory. Marcuse's task is two-fold. First, he must show that human instincts or drives are not merely biological and fixed, but rather, are social, historical, and malleable. Secondly, he must show that the repressive society also produces the possibility of the abolition of repression (Marcuse 1955: 5).
That the instincts can be repressed already suggest that society and its form of organization plays a role in shaping the instincts. If this is the case, the instincts cannot be fixed. As society and its mechanisms of repression change so does the instincts. Marcuse claims that:
The vicissitudes of the instincts are the vicissitudes of the mental apparatus in civilization. The animal drive become human instincts under the influence of the external reality. (Marcuse 1955: 11–12)
In this transformation of the animal drives into human instincts there is a transformation of the pleasure principle into the reality principle (Marcuse 1955: 12). In Civilization and its Discontents Freud claimed the it was the program of the pleasure principle that decided the purpose of life (Freud 1961 : 25). However, the external world does not conform to the dictates of the pleasure principle and is even hostile toward it. Hence, the pleasure principle reverts, turns inward, is repressed.
For Marcuse, liberation means a freeing up of the pleasure principle. However, he realizes that if human beings are to co-exist some degree of repression is necessary. That is, if one acted simply according to the demands of the pleasure principle this would lead to an infringement on the freedom of others. Hence, there has to be a mutual limiting of freedom and happiness if we are to co-exist. It is with regards to this problem that Marcuse comes up with one of his most creative modifications of Freud's theory.
Marcuse introduces two new terms to distinguish between the biological vicissitudes of the instincts and the social. Basic repression refers to the type of repression or modification of the instincts that is necessary “for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization” (Marcuse 1955: 35). At this level repression does not lend itself to domination or oppression. Surplus repression, on the other hand, refers to “the restrictions necessitated by social domination” (Marcuse 1955: 35). The purpose of surplus repression is to shape the instincts in accordance with the present “performance principle” which is “the prevailing form of the reality principle” (Marcuse 1955: 35).
It is in this idea of the performance principle where Marx and Freud meet.
The performance principle, which is that of an acquisitive and antagonistic society in the process of constant expansion, presupposes a long development during which domination has been increasingly rationalized: control over social labor now reproduces society on a large scale and under improving conditions. For a long way, the interests of domination and the interests of the whole coincide: the profitable utilization of the productive apparatus fulfills the needs and faculties of individuals. For the vast majority of the population, the scope and mode of satisfaction are determined by their own labor; but their labor is work for an apparatus which they do not control, which operates as an independent power to which individuals must submit if they want to live. And it becomes the more alien the more specialized the division of labor becomes. Men do not live their own lives but perform pre-established functions. While they work, they do not fulfill their own needs and faculties but work in alienation. (Marcuse 1955: 45)
Marcuse's point here is that while work is necessary for the maintenance of life, in our society there has been a transition from the basic amount of work needed to maintain life to what we might call surplus work. There is a distinction here between the work that is needed for one's satisfaction and work that is needed for the apparatus. The worker has no control insofar as he has no say in what his wages will be and cannot determine the amount of work that is needed to meet his needs. Work in a capitalist society extends itself beyond what is required for the satisfaction of the worker to what will maximize profit for the capitalist. The “pre-established function” of the worker is to produce commodities and maximize profit for the capitalist. The worker must work to live but the conditions under which she works is determined by the apparatus.
Being used by the apparatus requires conformity with the apparatus. This is what Marcuse means by the performance principle. Members of society must perform according to the dictates of their pre-established function. This performance requires the restriction of the libido. The worker must be manipulated in such a way so that these restrictions seem to function as rational, external objective laws which are then internalized by the individual. The desires of the individual must conform to the desires of the apparatus. The individual must define himself as the apparatus defines all humanity. As Marcuse puts it, “he desires what he is supposed to desire” (Marcuse 1955: 46).
Although Marcuse's theory of repression and the recognition of two forms of repression is a useful theoretical tool for understanding why we have not entered a revolutionary period, it falls short of explaining how desires are manipulated in such a way that one-dimensional identities are formed. One of the most interesting and fruitful criticisms of what is now called the “repression hypothesis” (Foucault 1976 : 17–49). For Foucault, forms of subjectivity or identity are not a result of the repression of some primordial desire. Rather, identities are formed through power and certain discursive practices. Further, in the process of identity-formation knowledge is not repressed but rather, called forth or produced. In his critique of Marcuse, Foucault writes:
I would also distinguish myself from para-Marxist like Marcuse who give the notion of repression an exaggerated role—because power would be a fragile thing if its only function were to repress, if it worked only through the mode of censorship, exclusion, blockage and repression, in the manner of a great Superego, exercising itself only in a negative way. If, on the contrary, power is strong this is because, as we are beginning to realize, it produces effects at the level of desire—and also at the level of knowledge. Far from preventing knowledge, power produces it. (Foucault 1980: 59)
4.3 Eros and Logos
Chapter Five of Eros and Civilization entitled “Philosophical Interlude” occurs as a bit of a rupture in the text. After discussion the Freudian theory of the instincts for four chapters, Marcuse takes a break from Freud and engages philosophy instead. However, this break is consistent with the purpose of the book. One of Marcuse's main concerns in all of his work is the rationalization of domination. This will be a major theme in One-Dimensional Man. This chapter also gives us a clue as to why Freud is so important for critical theory. Freud is put in opposition to the entire western philosophical tradition. The problem with the western philosophical tradition is that it constructs a view of rationality that is in compliance with the oppressive function of rationality or the form of rationality that supports domination. For example, the Kantian notion of moral duty for the sake of duty subordinates happiness to duty. Although Kant provides good reasons for this, he does not adequately address the need for happiness. According to Kant following the moral law makes one worthy of happiness perhaps in the afterlife, but there is no real concern for happiness in the present world.
Marcuse's criticism of western philosophy is very similar to recent criticisms by feminists and Africana philosophers. That is, philosophy tends to treat human beings as pure, abstract consciousness. The body and the passions are to be subdued by reason or Logos. Marcuse does not intend to subjugate Logos (reason) to Eros (desire). He simply wants to return Eros to its proper place as equal to Logos. It is Freud who recognizes the central role of Eros as a motivating factor in human action.
4.4 The Ideology of Scarcity
One of the most important features of Marcuse's work is his dialectical analysis of western society. In his work he tries to bring attention to the co-existence of possibilities for liberation and the further development of mechanisms of domination. Our society produces the necessary conditions for freedom while at the same time producing greater oppression.
The very progress of civilization under the performance principle has attained a level of productivity at which the social demands upon instinctual energy to be spent in alienated labor could be considerably reduced (Marcuse 1955: 129)
The capitalist performance principle (the maximization of production and profit) has actually created the preconditions for a qualitatively different and non-repressive form of life. However, we have not entered into this new form of life as more repression is demanded.
Individual workers continue to engage in alienating labor although their labor has produced enough wealth to sustain them without ongoing toil. The problem is that the capitalist system is structured in such a way that all of the wealth goes to the minority who own or control the means of production. Although wealth is socially produced, its ownership and use is restricted to a few individuals. Hence the concept of scarcity has become obsolete and is used in an ideological sense to control the worker. The inhibitions and forms of repression that the worker must impose on himself so that he may direct his libidinal energy toward work goes beyond producing the goods that he or she needs for survival and instead produces extreme wealth for the capitalist. It is here where Marcuse, relying on his distinction between basic and surplus repression goes beyond Freud. Regarding Freud's metapsychology Marcuse says:
For his metapsychology, it is not decisive whether the inhibitions are imposed by scarcity or by the hierarchical distribution of scarcity, by the struggle for existence or by the interest in domination. (Marcuse 1955: 134)
Marcuse's point is that in advanced industrial societies there is no longer a problem with acquiring the resources need for existence or even the optimum life for members of those societies. The problem is with the fair and just distribution of resources. The very existence of the concept of scarcity in this age functions ideologically and supports the domination of the worker by the capitalist.
4.5 Fantasy, Utopia, and the Rationality of Gratification
While the first half of Eros and Civilization does not sound any more optimistic than the conclusion of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, it does move from diagnosis to prognosis or from critique to hope. At the diagnostic level Marcuse examines the form of social pathology that permeates advanced industrial societies. The conclusion is that capitalism demands a level of surplus repression that supports the development of the death instinct and social domination. However, repression is never complete. Even Freud was aware of the incompleteness of repression in a 1915 essay simply entitled “Repression”. Both Freud and Marcuse recognize that repressed instincts never go away, but continue to assert themselves in one way or another. The erotic drive, which is the builder of culture, continues to assert itself in its conflict with the death instinct. According to Marcuse, the erotic drive for happiness and pleasure lives on in fantasies, art, and utopian visions.
The second half of Eros and Civilization is devoted to the work of fantasy and the imagination. Marcuse builds a case for the emancipatory function of the imagination with the support of his reconstruction of Freud, Kant, Schiller and others. His main point is that through the imagination we can envision a better world. This is not a blind utopian vision insofar as the resources for creating a qualitatively better form of life already exists. At the prognostic level, Marcuse argues for a fusion of Logos and Eros. This fusion he refers to as the “rationality of gratification” (Marcuse 1955: 224). Here, the struggle for existence is based on co-operation and the free development and fulfillment of needs.
Although Eros and Civilization is one of Marcuse's more optimistic works and it offered a new and radical interpretation of Freud as well, it is not without controversy. Marcuse's attempt to make Freud's drive theory central to an emancipatory critical theory drew criticisms from several sources. I will discuss the response by some feminists in a later section.
In an Epilogue to Eros and Civilization entitled “Critique of Neo-Freudian Revisionism” Marcuse accuses several prominent psychoanalysts of revising Freud's work in such a way that it is purged of its critical implications. These revisionists use psychoanalysis to develop a conformist psychology rather than a critical one. This led to an open debate between Marcuse and a former member of the Institute Erich Fromm. The debate took place in the mid 1950s in journal Dissent. Marcuse believed that Fromm and others had rejected some of Freud's key insights such as his libidinal theory, the death instinct, the Oedipus complex, the primal horde of patricides, etc.
The essential problem for Marcuse, was that as the years went by, Fromm moved further and further away from the instinctual basis of human personality. He had instead embraced “positive thinking which leaves the negative where it is—predominant over human existence” (Friedman 2013: 195).
Fromm's approach differed from Marcuse's insofar as he was more concerned with the role that society played in shaping one's character. This different approach does not mean that Fromm has become less critical. Fromm is perhaps correct in his claim that Marcuse misread him. Given Fromm's continued commitment to Marxism it is not likely that he would reduce psychoanalysis to a conformist psychology. What appears to be positive thinking in Fromm's work is really not far from what Marcuse was after himself in Eros and Civilization. That is, Fromm, in a way that differed from Marcuse, was attempting to rescue Eros the builder of culture from the oppressive forces of capitalism. The Fromm/Marcuse debate represents an unfortunate moment in the history of critical theory where two major thinkers spoke right past each other.
5. One-Dimensional Thinking and the Democratic Rejection of Democracy
The first chapter of One-Dimensional Man begins with the following sentence:
A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. (Marcuse 1964: 1)
One-Dimensional Man is a further analysis of the worry at the center of Reason and Revolution, the whittling down of critical or negative thinking. As we saw earlier, negative thinking is two-dimensional as it sees the contradictions by which society is constituted and it is aware of forces of domination. The person who thinks critically demands social change. One-dimensional thinking does not demand change nor does it recognize the degree to which the individual is a victim of forces of domination in society.
The idea of a democratic unfreedom refers to the free acceptance of oppression and surplus repression. In One-Dimensional Man and in Eros and Civilization Marcuse makes a decisive move beyond Marx and Freud in his explanation of the containment of social change. He uses Freud to go beyond Marx insofar as Freud helps us understand the psychological mechanisms at work in individuals who accept surplus repression. However, he goes beyond Freud insofar as Freud's theory of the super ego is obsolete. That is, in Freud's theory the super ego develops through the internalization of the values of some authority figure. According to Marcuse, the authority figure is no longer needed. The super ego has become depersonalized and is no longer fed by authority figures such as the father, ministers, teachers, the principle etc. He writes:
But these personal father-images have gradually disappeared behind the institutions. With the rationalization of the productive apparatus, with the multiplication of functions, all domination assumes the form of administration. (Marcuse 1955: 98)
Marcuse's point is that domination no longer requires force or the presence of an authority figure. The function of one-dimensional thinking is to produce a one-dimensional society by whittling down critical, two-dimensional consciousness. This is accomplished in several ways which will simply be listed here.
- The system must make the citizens think that they are freer than they really are.
- The system must provide the citizens with enough goods to keep them pacified.
- The citizens must identify with their oppressors.
- Political discourse must be put under erasure.
There is not enough space here to examine each of these. One example should suffice. It was shown earlier that the purpose of dialectical or negative thinking was to reveal social contradictions and demand the overcoming of those contradictions through social change. One-dimensional thinking smoothes over these contradictions, makes them invisible. A form of ideology is put in place where the oppressed identifies with the oppressor. People feel a sense of unity simply because they watch the same TV programs, or support the same sport teams. etc. In politics, vague terms are used such as the American people or the American way of life to hide the very different ways that people in America actually experience America. The American way of life differs greatly between the rich and those Americans who suffer from poverty.
Another example of one-dimensional thinking is the subject of Marcuse famous and controversial essay “Repressive Tolerance”. Here Marcuse shows how terms, ideas, or concepts that have their origin in struggles for liberation can be co-opted and used to legitimate oppression. The concept of tolerance was once used as a critical concept by marginalized social groups. According to Marcuse, the term is now used by the Establishment to legitimate its own oppressive views and policies. It is the idea of pure tolerance or tolerance for the sake of tolerance that puts under erasure the real concrete social conflict out of which the concept emerged. Rather than pure tolerance, Marcuse calls for “discriminating tolerance” (Marcuse 1968a: 123).
6. The Dialectic of Technology
In their famous book Dialectic of Enlightenment Marcuse's colleagues Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno attempted to demonstrate the Enlightenment embodied a tension between its own project of liberation and its own new mechanisms of oppression and domination. For Marcuse, modern technology (a product of the Enlightenment) embodies a similar tension. The question for him was “what role does technology play in the project of human emancipation?” The technological boom has been supported by the idea that there is some fundamental connection between technological development and the human quest for liberation and a better life. However, we were disabused of this idea by Freud and many others. The question now is “does technological advance lead to more repression and domination?”
Marcuse's critical theory is always dialectical, as he examines forms of oppression and domination he also sees at the same time the potential for liberation. In an essay entitled “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” written in 1941, Marcuse makes an important distinction between technology and technics. He would continue to employ some version of this distinction for the rest of his life when writing about technology. In this essay he says:
In this article, technology is taken as a social process in which technics proper (that is, the technical apparatus of industry, transportation, communication) is but a partial factor. We do not ask for the influence or effect of technology on human individuals. For they are themselves an integral part and factor of technology, not only as the men who invent or attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and utilization. Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organization and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination. Technics by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil. (Marcuse 1998)
On the basis of the above passage it may sound as if technics is neutral as it can promote either oppression or liberation. However, this is not the case. Marcuse makes this clear in another essay entitled “The Problem of Social Change in the Technological Society” written twenty years later. Also, in a 1960 essay entitled “From Ontology to Technology”, using the term “technicity” instead of “technics” he again rejects the neutrality of technics or technicity. By “technics”, Marcuse means the devices or instruments that are used to transform nature in the service of human beings.
Technics is the methodological negation of nature by human thought and action. In this negation, natural conditions and relations become instrumentalities for the preservation, enlargement, and refinement of human society. (Marcuse 2011: 45)
By “Technology”, Marcuse means the mode of production or the totality of instruments, devices, etc.
If technology refers to a mode of production or totality of instruments, then as such it is situated within a certain ideological structure, indeed, it is a form of ideology which determines the form of machinery for a particular form of production as well as that form of production itself. Here, “ideology” simply refers to a belief system or a way of thinking which would include the telos or purpose of all social thought and action.
At the level of technics, a machine can be considered neutral only as pure matter, but in a technological society no such machine exists, hence, technics is not neutral. Every machine is constituted within a web of social, political, economic meaning, an ensemble of social relations. Technics exists within a certain mode of production as well as in certain relations of production. Every technical item is given a mission and is to further the goals of the present reality principle or capitalist performance principle. There is a dialectic involved here insofar as even if modern technology has its origin in a repressive, oppressive, capitalist reality principle, this same technology carries with in itself other possibilities.
Marcuse believed that it was possible to conceive of technology under an entirely new reality principle. In the capitalist system, technics and its governing technological ideology is based on the performance principle of competition and production and must serve the goals set by this performance principle. Even if scarcity is no longer a real problem, the idea and fear of scarcity are taken up and put to work for the ideology of production for the sake of production and competition for the sake of competition. We are never told that at this moment we have the necessary resources to end world hunger. Instead, we are told that more and more technological progress will end the problem of scarcity.
According to Marcuse, the use that is made of technology is ideologically shaped by the present reality principle. It is this oppressive/repressive reality principle that shapes the telos of technological development. Hence, neither technology nor technics can be neutral because the entire meaning and purpose of such has its birth within a reality and performance principle that as Marcuse has reminded us, does not have the liberation and happiness of all human beings as its goal. The entire technological and technical apparatus is given its form and mission by the ruling class.
According to Marcuse, a new sensibility, that is, a reshaping of human relationships with each other as well as with nature would usher in a new reality principle. With this new reality principle would come a new mission or telos for technology. Under this new reality principle it would be unthinkable to associate technological progress with the building of bombs and more sophisticated instruments of death.
7. The Specter of Liberation: The Great Refusal and the New Sensibility
Although the form of critique in some of Marcuse's works and the use of concepts such as one-dimensionality may cause one to read a bit of pessimism into Marcuse's texts, nothing could be more problematic than such a reading. The social reality in advanced industrial societies is that very sophisticated systems of domination are in place and they are capable of transforming themselves to meet the challenge of any movement for liberation. However, as Marx and Engels warned in The Communist Manifesto, “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism” (Marx and Engels 1848 : 55). For Marcuse, the specter of liberation haunted advanced industrial societies. One might even say that Marcuse's own critical theory was haunted by the specter of liberation. That is, at one level Marcuse engaged in a critique of oppressive social structures so that the door for revolution and liberation could be opened. At another level, Marcuse would modify his theory to make room for various form of resistance that he saw developing in oppressive societies. Marcuse was at once a teacher of revolutionary consciousness and a student.
Although he was called the guru of the student movements in the 1960s, he rejected this title because he was also learning from these movements. The hope for revolution lay within individuals who in there very being have grown weary with their own repression. The student movements of the 60s was not based on class struggle, but rather, a rejection of their own repression as well as a growing lack of tolerance for war and waste. In the Preface to An Essay on Liberation while reflecting on the student revolt of 1968 Marcuse says:
In proclaiming the “permanent challenge,” (la contestation permanente), the “permanent education,” the Great Refusal, they recognized the mark of social repression, even in the most sublime manifestations of traditional culture, even in the most spectacular manifestations of technical progress. They have again raised a specter (and this time a specter which haunts not only the bourgeoisie but all exploitative bureaucracies): the specter of a revolution which subordinates the development of productive forces and higher standards of living to the requirements of creating solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, for the attainment of peace. (Marcuse 1969: ix–x)
The student protests of the 1960s were a form of Great Refusal, a saying “NO” to multiple forms of repression and domination. This Great Refusal demands a new/liberated society. This new society requires what Marcuse calls the new sensibility which is an ascension of the life instincts over the aggressive instincts (Marcuse 1969: 23). This idea of a new sensibility is yet another move beyond Marxism insofar as it requires much more than new power relations. It requires the cultivation of new forms of subjectivity. Human subjectivity in its present form is the product of systems of domination. We rid society of its systems of domination by ridding it of the forms of subjectivity formed by those systems and replacing them with new forms of subjectivity. This is why Marcuse was so interested in the feminist movement. He saw in this movement the potential for radical social change. The process of rethinking femininity and masculinity could be the beginning of redefining male subjectivity so that it develops in a way that males become less aggressive.
The cultivation of a new sensibility would transform the relationship between human beings and nature as well as the relationships between human beings. The new sensibility is the medium of social change that mediates between the political practice of changing the world and one's own drive for personal liberation (Marcuse 2007: 234).
8. Marcuse and Feminism
Marcuse's search for a form radical subjectivity that could serve as an impetus for revolution or social transformation led him down a path not traveled by his Frankfurt School colleagues. Indeed, one of the criticisms of Marcuse is that he gave in to pessimism and gave up on the working class as revolutionary subject. For Marcuse, we must look to “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, etc,” for any social change (MacIntyre 1970: 87).
One of the social movements that Marcuse turns to is the feminist movement. On March 7, 1974 Marcuse gave a paper at Stanford University entitled, “Marxism and Feminism”. In it he states:
I believe the women's liberation movement today is, perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have. (Marcuse 2005: 165)
For Marcuse, the women's liberation movement was important not only for the liberation of women, but also for the liberation of all oppressed people in our society. His hope was that the struggle for the liberation of women would create a new type of performance principle and aid in the cultivation of a new sensibility. In short, certain feminine qualities would replace brutish, violent, masculine qualities. Marcuse actually advocated a form of androgyny.
One of the main criticisms of Marcuse's attitude toward feminism is that he simply reinforces gendered stereotypes as falls back into essentialism. Nina Power has recently defended Marcuse against this charge. Her argument is similar to the one that Marcuse made in an interview with Brian Magee in 1978. Power and Marcuse both argues that although so-called feminine categories are social constructs, they still can be universalized in such a way that all human beings develop a new sensibility. Power states that:
Feminist socialism would universalize these so-called feminine characteristics so that they were no longer specifically “feminine” at all but would characterize all culture, culminating in androgyny. Residual aggression would be channeled into “the destruction of the ugly destructiveness of capitalism,” in Marcuse's rather neat phrase. “Feminism is a revolt against decaying capitalism” and will ultimately have to develop its “own morality”. (Power 2013: 79)
Feminists such as Jessica Benjamin and Nancy Chodorow have pointed out a particular weakness in Marcuse's critical theory that was never addressed by Marcuse himself. For both thinkers, Marcuse's reliance on Freud's drive theory as that which might produce the need for social change is inadequate because he fails to account for the intersubjective development of the individual.
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