Tag Archives: Herbert Marcuse

Wouldn’t  it to be an interesting question for a social media game among academic philosophers to ask them the first and last book read during their studies? I realised with some amazement that in my case both were classics of critical theory. In 1981, after a year of introductory courses which used textbooks and readers, I read ‘Erkenntnis und Interesse’ by Jürgen Habermas, and in 1987, for the final exam, I read Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’. Both books were suggested by Kees Bertels, who was the professor of Social Philosophy in the Sociology Department. I met him during the two years in which I tried to study Sociology (between 1978 and 1980). The only things that really interested me there were theoretical: symbolic interactionism, Weber, Critical Theory. So it was better that I moved on to Philosophy. I kept in contact with Bertels through my first job as an assistant teacher, which I have to thank him for, and I did my facultative courses with him. He was kind of a hippie-professor, with wild curly hair, and ethnic necklaces – at least that is how I remember him. I also remember that there was a small scandal when he didn’t want to wear the obligatory tie when at a PhD examination committee. He never gave me the high notes that the regular philosophy professors did, so I have grumbled for some years that studying with him cost me my ‘cum laude’. But I also knew that he offered me a lot, intellectually – not only with his suggestions for books and a theme for the paper which I never wrote in the end (it should have been about ‘freedom in the young Marx and in Hegel), but also in his brave example to work outside of the mainstream.

This month I had the opportunity to teach two courses with critical theory in them, one on the Prison as the flipside of modernity, and the other on ‘hermeneutics and critical theory’. While discussing Foucault and Angela Davis in the one course, and philosophers like Gadamer, Derrida and Habermas in the other, I noticed a lacuna in my preparations that I hadn’t thought of. I hadn’t realized that nobody knows the work by Adorno and Horkheimer anymore. All the same it is at the background of many later critical analyses. They were researchers at the famous Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, who fled nazi-Germany to transplant, with other famous colleagues like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the US. Characteristic for their work was that they opened up the rigid walls of method that still surround much academic philosophy, to find the focus for their research not in disciplinary presuppositions, but in the actual problems in society. The question at issue should lead the way to the approach chosen. A creative mixture of Freudian and Marxian ideas gave them the tools to analyse the blind spots of modern Europe, which had not succeeded to live up to its own Enlightenment ideals of freedom and dignity for all human beings. On the contrary – Europe had produced one of the most horrific and efficient totalitarian states known in modern times – in it’s philosopical heartlands so to speak.

Marxian analyses were useful to highlight the intertwined economic and political systems that worked to manipulate and produce docile individuals. Psychoanalysis helped to show the need to look into the cultural subconscious to find the roots for the acceptance, even the collective desire for such systems. After the war, Jürgen Habermas became the undisputed new man of the Frankfurt School on the continent – giving it a twist toward more ‘classical’ philosophy again – bringing a version of Kantian transcendental questioning back. Even when the possibility conditions he looked for were inspired by the interdisciplinary approach, the focus of the actual problems became, with Habermas, secondary once more to methodical questions. The more creative versions of Critical Theory developed in the US, with the Cold War as it’s backdrop. Marcuse came up with new and fascinating analyses of the relations between the military-industrial complex, the culture industry, and repressive desublimation. His pupil Angela Davis was part of a new generation of Critical Theorists, who put the interdisciplinary approach at work to study and contest social injustices based on race and gender – drawing too on a tradition of black thinkers who had been largely unnoticed in Academe.

In one of the more fundamental discussions in the course on the prison, my students and myself debated whether philosophy that was interdisciplinary could still be philosophical. My opinion was that it philosophy has to be interdisciplinary – to avoid being dead towards the world we live in. I cited Lewis Gordon’s book ‘Disciplinary Decadence’: ‘Where philosophy is treated as a closed affair that is simply “applied” to [x], it collapses into decadence. But where it is seen as an inexact activity, as the effort to think about the […] implications of [x], it transcends disciplinary decadence.’ The point being that a form of ‘transcendence’ is only reached when ‘a discipline suspends its own centering because of a commitment to questions greater than the discipline itself.’ The transcendance of disciplinary narrowness is taken to another level by a thinker who finds mind-bending deconstructions of racially oppresive thought patterns, Tommy J. Curry. While transcending the disciplinary, he urges his readers to move from understanding black art as transcending hardship, to submerging the viewer into things as they are: ‘For many philosophers interested in aesthetics, the beautiful has been transcending, and transformative to the extent that it provides the ideals through which truth and the good may be attained, but what if the philosophical relevation of “art” is not its ability to transcend, but its ability to submerge – to depict the suffering of the oppressed as eidetic glimmers cast upon the shadows of the colonial order?’ This quotation I used in the other course.

If I have only really reached the mind of one student, like Kees Bertels reached my mind in the late seventies talking about Marcuse and Horkheimer and Adorno, as a teacher I will be satisfied. For the discipline of philosophy it is however badly needed that the Interdisciplinary and the Critical is heard more often. I love philosophy too much to let it slumber away and not wake up to what should concern reflection nowadays. All the great problems of inhumanity in our time can and should still be analysed with the dedication that Adorno and Horkheimer showed towards those of their days. The Shadows of Enlightenment are still here.

Today I must combine work to be done with writing my weekly blogpost – and I do so with pleasure – reading Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man once more while preparing for my paper presentation next week on the ‘unsustainable society’. An ethical paper it shall be. I am grappling with the richness of thought in this book still. A book that for a long time has been considered outdated, as it inscribed itself in the Cold War debate on ‘communist’ versus ‘capitalist’ answers to the post-fascist era. I write ‘communist’ and ‘capitalist’ in question marks for I doubt the very opposition of concepts. And in fact, although Marcuse’s work shows an attempt to rise beyond it too. The core of his undertaking is to try to see the truth about the world he lived in, a world which is in our day, although ‘post-cold-war’ now, in many aspects still the same.

Many people think Marcuse’s work has nothing to do with ethics, since that discipline considers human individuals and the rightness/wrongness of their acts, whereas One Dimensional Man would only consider social reality. A judgment that is wrong. As Marcuse has shown a person cannot have freedom of thought when he/she is caught up in what he calls ‘repressive desublimation’. This funny reversal of Freud’s idea that sublimation helps people to grasp with unpleasant or injust realities goes to the insight that in post second world war society it is desublimation – the actual and gradual dissapearance of unpleasantness and injustice that makes us loose sight of reality. As wealth grows, working hours are legislated, pensions and unemployment support are regulated, people in the richer parts of the world loose the ability to see their unfreedom. This process is, according to Marcuse, sustained by a continuous and aggressive marketing of goods, ideas, desires. ‘To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society.’ Repressing repressive desublimation therefore means: denying ourselves to be constantly immersed in this continuous stream that fills the negative void that would have been our freedom.

Without freedom there is no moral agent, and no ethics, so Marcuse has shown that one cannot start to reflect on morality without repressing the repressive physical and psychological obesity of which all people in the richer parts of the world (and I would say also in those attaining to become rich) suffer. As a refugee of the nazi regime Marcuse is of the opinion that fascism has not dissapeared in the aftermath of the allied victory in 1945. And he doesn’t refer to the odd neonazi group which would want to destabilize society. He refers to the ‘advertising and indoctrination’ which were, combined with terror, after all also the ground upon which the nazi regime built its continued acceptance among German citizens while they led their country into the abyss.

A second step that Marcuse takes, after having shown that analysis of society is the groundwork for doing ethics, is showing that philosophy therefore has to be political, and not just academic: ‘the therapeutic task of philosophy would be a political task, since the established universe of ordinary language tends to coagulate into a totally manipulated and indoctrinated universe. Then politics would appear in philosophy, not as a special discipline or object of analysis, nor as a special political philosophy, but as the intent of its concepts to comprehend the unmutilated reality.’ So to critically reflect on reality, to speak truth, philosophy has to avoid to ‘escape into the non-controversial, the unreal, into that which is only academically controversial.’ And what is that reality one should to try to see? It is precisely the unsustainability of a society in which the mass of people are being lulled into believing that wealth and justice is coming into reach for more and more people when one only trusts the workings of the market economy and the pluralist democracy that protects it.

His conclusion is not that we should abolish democracy, hell no, not even if it were only the best of several problematic alternatives. What should be done, and can only be done if one removes part of the repressive blanket, is to see democracy in it’s present state for what it is: a protection of a herd against those which are outside: ‘the substratum of the outcasts and the outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process […] their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game.’ Declining the seduction to prophecy, Marcuse does not see a positive solution, his work remains critical. The only positive thing he deems possible is seen by him as a chance: that the most advanced consciousness and its most exploited force meet. Ironically this happens here and there in our times through one of the very ‘repressive’ gadgets the rich world has produced: the internet. It already creates changes, revolutions even – but our only chance at a humane outcome lies in trying our best to scrutinize the process constantly – preventing that it will reproduce the very repression which it is aiming at to repress.

I cited from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man in the Routledge edition of 1991. The original work was published in 1964. The book bears the subtitle: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society.

The ethics conference which I hope to visit in August has in it’s title ‘Ethics of an Open Future’. And furher it is on Climate Change and Sustainability. It should be on the major problems which face humanity, therefore (although one never knows whether this will remain so when academics start to talk shop). I chose to discuss there in my paper two rather radical books – Derrida’s 1993 study Specters of Marx and Marcuse’s 1964 work on One Dimensional Man. Both philosophers explicitly draw (among so many other sources) on the thought of Karl Marx, but do so in the most original manner, writing not as followers or disciples of the great nineteenth century analyst of his times, but as analysts of their own times, searching for tools to unhinge the silence that hides the current power structures. Should I write ‘silence’, or ‘innocence’?

Heidegger coined the word ‘Seinsvergessenheit’  which should mean a having-forgotten about being to such a degree that one has even forgotten the forgetfulness. To many a reader this will be vague, as it is hard to understand why we should be aware of ‘being’. Heidegger’s most original pupil, Hannah Arendt, used this idea of something lost and out of sight, and stuck it on a more urgent matter – the forgetting of politics, as a critical exchange between free human beings. As politics became, in the twentieth century, management of society instead of this critical exchange, she named this ‘Weltverlust’, loss of world. World meaning for her the public space which human beings create with each other when they exchange their different, perspectivated views. Differing, daring to discuss and criticize creates the ‘room to move’ for the human spirit, individually as well as in community.

Marcuse must have been inspired by her work when he titled the second chapter of his book ‘The Closing of the Political Universe’. Modern society, which measures it’s succes with an eye to it’s technological progress, blinds itself to this goal – ‘progress’. When technological progress is the ultimate goal, in industry, in consumption, as well as in scientific research and argumentation, society goes blind to the quality of human life – that is – to the idea that first fired the struggle for modernity: freedom. We have lost public space (to a great extent), as we live in a closed political universe. That is, when we have lost the possibility to criticize the principles by which our society propells itself into the future. One could also say that we live in a situation of a closed future. Slaves of progress, without any thought in our minds on where this should lead us…

And here comes the relationship with ethics: when we cannot criticize society for it’s goals, when we cannot discuss what we want in life as human beings, when we are, therefore, not free – we can neither be moral. A moral agent is supposed to be a free agent, and both Derrida in his mentioned work and Marcuse, have tried to show their contemporaries that we loose our morality when the political universe is closed. Their work is a work of titanic proportions, as they had to do away with the ideology of the Cold War (and it’s supposed ending in Derrida’s case) that had stifled the thought of an entire era. Re-opening the political universe is not an easy thing, and the majority of the work still has to be done. It means we have to disengage ourselves of the society of needs – of the economy of scarcity, that is, and of the metaphors of war which are used to support it. It is understandable that they went back to Marx, as his analysis of the economical universe is still worthy of further interpretation. Their search for words to articulate the hinge that decides on openness/freedom over against closure/repression – living our difference, our multi-dimensionality, our plurality – owes to my view more than said to that great twentieth century analyst of the political: Hannah Arendt. But that is not the point here – the point is that we can not reclaim our status of moral agents unless we decide to dare to be political once more.

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press 1998 [originally published in 1958]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge 1994 [original French edition 1993]

Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge 2002 [first edition 1964, second edition 1991]

When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).