At the 2011 S-USIH Conference, back when we still held it in the CUNY Graduate Center basement, I attended a memorable panel with Dave Steigerwald on it. If I remember correctly, Dave’s paper issued a challenge to easy Frankfurt School assumptions about an all-encompassing mass society. During a spirited Q&A session, I remember asking Dave, in somewhat cheeky form, whether Marcuse, at the end of the day, wasn’t still right. Dave recently wrote to me in an email about our exchange: “Unsure of what I thought then, I did my best to brush the question off. I’ve been thinking a lot about it though, particularly because I’ve just taught the Sixties class for the first time in four years, and I found myself with you talking in my ear a lot.”
Dave then went on to suggest that we should organize a symposium on the question: Isn’t Herbert Marcuse Still Right? Thinking this a brilliant idea, especially because I’ve been meaning to return to Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School in my “Marx in America” research, I have agreed to organize just such a symposium and host it here at the S-USIH Blog sometime in May. Consider this the Call for Papers.
Marcuse, one of the Frankfurt School émigrés and many other European intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany during the 1930s and landed in the United States, is best known for his 1964 book that became one of the central texts of the New Left: One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial. Papers may consider One-Dimensional Man—its history, its reception, its continued relevance or lack thereof. But papers are welcome to venture beyond that single text to explore other avenues of inquiry about Marcuse.
My contribution to the roundtable will focus on Marcuse’s writings on Marx, including his 1958 book Soviet Marxism which was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of US intelligence and foundation efforts to project non-communist but radical images and ideas. I will extend this analysis to think about how Marcuse used Marx in his analysis of American culture, especially in One-Dimensional Man and also in his 1972 reflections on Nixon’s America, Counterrevolution and Revolt. There is an irony here that Mark Greif has noticed in his recent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man. That is, Marcuse was commissioned to study Marx in order to prove that Marx was the progenitor of totalitarianism, but in the end those who commissioned Marcuse got more than they bargained for when he turned his analysis of totalitarianism on his adopted country.
Dave, for his part, is scheduled to participate in a seminar on “social control” at the Planck Institute in June, and thought that he could use this symposium to think through some ideas that have been percolating in relation to that upcoming seminar. His contribution will be about “Marcuse in the Age of Choice”—how Marcuse dealt with 1968, and how post-1968 treated Marcuse.
Other possible avenues that papers may take:
There are ways to think that Marcuse is no longer relevant. Take the central point in One-Dimensional Man, which Marcuse makes on the first sentence of the first page: “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.” Although such an argument made sense in the relative affluence of the United States circa 1964, perhaps it makes less sense in 2016, when the harder edges of capitalism have returned like the repressed, and when “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, [and] democratic” are no longer apt descriptors.
Following the acerbic Frankfurt School position against mass consumer society that was first made famous by Adorno and Horkheimer in their 1944 classic, The Dialectic of Enlightement, Marcuse argued that, “once institutionalized,” bourgeois freedoms that seemed like radical demands in an earlier epoch, such as free speech, were no longer social threats. “The achievement cancels the premise,” he wrote, in a way that made sense to many in 1964. And yet in 2016, we can no longer take even bourgeois freedoms for granted. As such we invite papers to explore the ways in which Marcuse isn’t still right.
But, from another perspective, Marcuse might be more right now than ever. Take for example social media, which legal theorist Bernard Harcourt claims is the engine of our new totalitarianism, or the means by which we are now subjected to One-Dimensional Society. I give you the first two paragraphs of my recent Bookforum review of Harcourt’s book Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age:
I have a confession to make: I use social media. In fact I enjoy social media. I delight in responses I receive from friends and family when I post pictures of my cute children to Facebook. I like seeing pictures of other people’s cute children on Facebook. I appreciate the network of scholars I find on Twitter. And I’m also glad that Twitter provides me a platform to promote my own work. Social media, it seems, channel my desires.
And that, it seems, is the problem—at least as Bernard Harcourt lays it out in his challenging book, Exposed. Harcourt, a law professor at Columbia University and founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, warns us that “our joyful and fulfilling embrace of social media” (13) is yoking us to a new techno-oligopoly unprecedented in its ability to control the masses. Harcourt implies that totalitarian logic organizes our society—but, echoing past New Left critics [Marcuse] of “repressive tolerance,” he contends that this softer brand of thought control enlists us, the great self-surveilling digital audience, as engineers of our own cognitive subjection: “we have brought this upon ourselves willingly, enthusiastically, and with all our passion” (13). Concentrated power vacuums up our desire and turns it against us to enslave us. This is what Harcourt calls the “expository society”—only instead of the emperor, it’s the masses who are left feeling naked and open to hostile, never-ending and exploitative public view.
In short, perhaps Marcuse gives us the resources to think through Harcourt’s “expository society”?
Marcuse was one of the best at bringing the resources of modern European philosophy to bear on the following problem: How is it that the particular needs of the powerful come to seem like universal needs, which then appear “to be the very embodiment of Reason”? This was what Marcuse meant by the “repressive society,” and this remains an open question for theorists.
That problem was compounded, though, by another problem particular to theory in a repressive society. Marcuse wrote that “social theory is concerned with the historical alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces.” But he went on to contend that technological progress seemed to have defeated such alternatives by solving social contradictions. In this Marcuse meant the great modern contradiction isolated by Marx: that between capital and labor. Perhaps this contradiction has returned, but the ways in which social media regulate our lives seem to blunt its effects. Agency is a thin reed. In his masterful history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay observed that One-Dimensional Man posed a problem to theories of agency: “how change might occur in a society that controlled the consciousness of its members…” Is this still so?
We welcome papers on these questions and many more. Papers may use Marcuse as a starting point, as a canvass, as an historical subject, as a lens, or more. If you are interested in participating in this symposium, send me a short (200 word) abstract outlining your proposed contribution. ([email protected])