Beyond 1984…

We’ve long landed in 1984. And like in Orwell’s novel, most of us don’t even care. The spaces where we are not under survey get ever scarcer. And the thing is, we tend to admire people who work towards unlocking the final reserves where surveillance is not yet the strongest force. We admire the biologists who, with great courage, ‘discover’ all the butterflies in the amazon. We admire the people who bring modern schooling to all corners of the world. Or modern medical care, like vaccines. These people do not have the goal to conquer more land for the Empire 1984 – but as an effect of their good intentions and their personal courage, they do.

One month ago this small and off-the-record (not part of any official schooling or research plan) reading group I am in, started with a new book. One-Dimensional Man, a book that fascinated me when I read it as a student, but I felt I did not completely understand where the sting of its main argument was. So: happy that we can read it together – maybe in concert we will understand more of it. During the first session I was struck that several of our group had remarks like ‘but why should we read this? What is it with this search for freedom and authenticity that Marcuse is pursuing?’ I had never asked myself that question.

The next session I first understood the origin of these questions, when we entered in a discussion whether Marcuse was modern or postmodern – another question I had never asked myself, perhaps because I read the book first when those concepts were not yet known to me. Also for me Marcuse always was linked to the rightful and necessary liberation movement, like the one in which his pupil Angela Davis played her part. Let’s link this documentary on their connection here once more.

Aha! So now thinking resistance to the One Dimensional Society, to Empire 1984, risks to be thrown out as part of hated Modernism, which produced colonialism, über-rationality, and stifled our natural being, like in the Louis XVI gardens? Did I understand that rightly?

This same month, I watched CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ film of the days that Edward Snowden made his disclosures that the American National Sescurity Agency was in essence spying on all American, and many non-American citizens. I was struck when he explained his feelings about his situation, in his hotelroom, before he was found out as the source, but knowing he would within days. He said something like: “I feel free. Now I can do nothing else but act.” Exactly this feeling I knew, and had I been pursuing for decades to understand philosophically (and still am).

This is the thing: modern culture and modern thinking created both – calculation, colonialism, objectification of human beings and of all nature in one stroke – everything Foucault called ‘discipline’. It produced a society in which we are continuously surveilled, in which ‘everything’ is measured, known, and dominated; and… it created the idea, not only of individual liberties (whose value is restricted by love, community, solidarity), but of a principled freedom – which is not even individual, as the individual (like in the case of Snowden) is overtaken by a greater responsibility, and may sacrifice his life as it is. This is the freedom to act, and this is the freedom to resist. It is ‘negative’ freedom, Marcuse would say. Negative over against the disciplinary system of Empire 1984.

Now even Snowden’s act is sinking in the sea of oblivion. I guess my new students would not know who he is. They never heard of Marcuse either, by the way, nor of Angela Davis. Some know the name of George Orwell, though, as they read his novel. More on the power of fiction another time. Let me conclude by giving a quote from One-Dimensional Man, where Marcuse analyzes the ‘military-industrial complex’ in which we all seem to live:

“the insanity of the whole absolves the particular insanities and turns the crimes against humanity into a rational enterprise. When the people […] prepare for lives of total mobilization, they are sensible not only because of the present Enemy, but also because of the investment and employment possibilities in industry and entertainment.”

(p. 55 of the 1991 Routledge edition)

1 comment
  1. I just reviewed, as well as interviewed the author of, a new book on Marcuse. This one is in the form of comics. You think you would enjoy it. Overall, it is easy enough to follow although quite dense. It’s the actual subject and what is being said that can get overly academic and sometime otherworldly ornate. In the end, we naturally seek freedom and we strive to navigate, or even change if possible, whatever keeps us from having our freedom. Sadly, we can only do the best we can since our utopia, while an ongoing goal, is more mirage than reality.

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