U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? (CFP)

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse

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])

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Although I don’t have anything to say about whether Marcuse was right or not, having recently seen the Coen Brothers’ new movie, _Hail Caesar_, Marcuse is on my mind. If you haven’t seen it, it’s set in the Hollywood of the 1950s, with the studio system at its full force. A subplot involves a Marxist reading group/club of screenwriters, fully devoted to the science of historical materialism and Soviet loyalty. At the meeting of this group (in a Santa Barbara beach house), a Professor Herbert Marcuse explains the iron laws of historical determinism to a wide-eyed George Clooney. It’s a massive in-joke, I suppose, but the choice to turn Marcuse into a straight-up 1950s communist ideologue seems a curious one, given the anti-Stalinist politics of the Frankfurt School thinkers. So, I’m musing about what that might mean. An added note: definitely not one of the Coen Brothers better movies, but it is a movie about labor, monopoly capitalism, and the culture industry!

    • Thanks, Dan, I try to see all Coen brothers movies, and one about labor, monopoly, and capitalism–well, all the better!

      I should add that contributors don’t have to inveigh on whether Marcuse was right nor not. We’re fine with plain old intellectual history, too!

  2. Andrew, I’m glad to see this CFP and will be delighted to read the papers that come out of it.

    As you may have guessed, I’m not a huge fan of the Frankfurt School’s influence (dare I say “hegemony”?), though I worry that this judgment puts me out of synch with the consensus of left-leaning academe in general. But I have found some cover for my contrariness in Bruce Kuklick’s succinct and somewhat critical take on Horkheimer and Adorno:

    ….[T]he members of the Frankfurt School betrayed the dilemmas of Marxist speculators in a hostile world. Horkheimer was an entrepreneur and institution builder who operated capably even in a global capitalist economy that was under stress. Although he worried whether the Institute would have money to carry on, he maintained its independent endowment, and acted like an industrial manager. Horkheimer and Adorno were also not unaware of their place in the hierarchy of prestige and perquisites that universities in both Germany and America offered; they wanted position and office, as well as salaries befitting their status.

    Conservative in a deeper sense, they also disliked their sojourn in a heterogeneous United States where class authority seemed non-existent, and where, at least in the realm of culture, common folk had their own forms of public pleasure, over which the social elite had no control. The Frankfurt School worried that American mass culture, indeed, was fascistic. Horkheimer and Adorno could only imagine that a healthy cultural life was determined from above; culture for them was aristocratic and was degraded and degenerate if it were not. Their empirical studies of American culture were hyperbolic in their negative attitude, and when they returned to Europe in 1950, their view of the United States looked as much like that of gloomy central European conservatives as of anti-capitalist Marxists. (from A History of Philosophy in America, p. 230.)

    Granted, that’s hardly an impartial or indifferent reading of the Frankfurters — but I think it’s an instructive one. And I like the possibilities that it opens up for reflecting on the “conservatism” of certain kinds of cultural criticism — some buried canons, if you will.

    Then again, I put Van Morrison and Katy Perry cheek by jowl on my iPod, and am just as happy to watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as I am to watch Moonrise Kingdom. And I was strangely not bothered to find out that all the treacly pop songs I love so much are written by 45-year-old Swedes. So what do I know?

    Now, back to Harrison Ford…

    • Thanks for dropping a Kuklick bomb! 🙂 Seriously, though, I don’t necessarily disagree with Kuklick but I think in some important ways Marcuse stands out from the Frankfurt School and I think he’s closer to Arendt in having a healthy skepticism about American culture but not thinking European culture better. Unlike others, Arendt and Marcuse stayed in the US and made a home there even after it was safe to return to Europe. In any case, this will be fun to explore in this symposium.

      • Or in words you can really get behind, Marcuse was less into canons than someone like Adorno.

    • The second half of that passage is totally legit criticism, but I am a little thrown by the first. What is the point here, that because members of the Frankfurt School acted like capitalists and were successful in capitalism we should therefore be suspect of their views?

      Or maybe I am missing something? I’m just not a fan of the “they are a hypocrite and therefore not to be listened to” argument since, in global capitalism, nearly all of us cannot help but be hypocrites. It’s not like they were running hedge funds or anything, right?

      • Yeah, it’s a little axe-grindy. And I agree: the most useful critique comes in the second paragraph. I debated whether to offer just the second half of the first paragraph as a lead-in – I felt like I had to give some antecedent to “Conservative in a deeper sense…” The most valuable part of the first paragraph, for me anyhow, is the observation about the prestige economy of higher ed and A&H’s seeming investment in it. It seems to me a salutary reminder of the very difficult/vexed position of the academic-as-critic, a position that we all more or less have to negotiate.

        When it comes to Marcuse, Kuklick argues that he was more successful in moving beyond the ivory tower and becoming an “engaged critic” of American culture – I guess as a “participant-observer,” though Kuklick doesn’t use that term.

  3. Fair enough — and Kuklick is slightly less rough on Marcuse than he is on Horkheimer and Adorno. Still, there’s just something a tad too precious about Frankfurt school aestheticism — as if the little man from Chehaw Station has to be a hipster to be legit. Perish the thought!

    • I’m much more interested in the political problems posed by Marcuse than the aesthetic ones (which was always more an issue with Adorno).

    • I know this sounds weird and persnickety, but I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this really interesting analogy while avoiding tons of student essays. Maybe it works if Ellison’s Little Man had figured out he was in hell. Expressing his sense of doom on the regular, he abandons any jazz-inflected ontological whims about improvisatory freedom and that claptrap, messing about instead with crashing dissonances and a twelve-tone scale. Maybe then maybe Adorno would be OK with him. Probably not since Ellison means to solve a classic riddle having to do with democratic taste with the Little Man. The whole idea would be pretty much repugnant for a guy like Ted it seems to me. I can’t help but think of the scorn that Adorno heaps on people that might have passed for hipsters in “The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” people with jazz record collections and the like, not to mention lovely nerds–hobbyists and ham radio enthusiasts, etc. For Adorno anyhow, the Little Man would be the most deluded of all I suspect. The very notion of taste, after all, is “outmoded.” Any time I want to laugh really hard, I read passages from Minima Moralia out loud. Parts of that are hilarious. It’s incredible how seriously Adorno took himself in there.

  4. As for the Fromm v. Marcuse debate: Fromm got Freud (largely) right (including what was missing from a Marxist viewpoint), and Marcuse’s interpretation of Fromm’s work was wildly off the mark in several important respects. As John Rickert explains, while Fromm had a difficult time grasping what Marcuse was up to generally, Nancy Chodorow did not, and she honed in on the central feature of Marcuse’s appropriation of Freudian ideas:

    “…Fromm shows little understanding of Marcuse’s overall project. He does not see that under Nietzsche’s influence, Marcuse is trying to articulate a materialist conception of liberation that is free of the repressive features of idealistic ethics. Marcuse has chosen to express this vision within a [fairly orthodox] Freudian framework. But it is precisely the use of Freudian constructs that blocks Fromm from fully understanding the goals Marcuse is trying to express. When the latter uses the concept of narcissism, for example, to articulate the notion of a non-alienated relation between nature and the human individual, Fromm sees only the regressive connotations inherent in this construct; he is insensitive to the progressive intent underlying Marcuse’s use of it.

    In contrast, Chodorow’s essay exhibits a much firmer grasp of Marcuse’s project as a whole as well as of the specific goals he is trying to articulate. She sees, for example – as Fromm does not – the motives behind the celebration of narcissism and the infantile perversions. But she also understands – and this is her key insight – that the way in which Marcuse chooses to appropriate psychoanalysis profoundly limits the content of the goals he is trying to express. By focusing exclusively on drive theory as the radical core of psychoanalysis and articulating his vision within the framework this theory provides, Marcuse is led to put forth an asocial and hyper-individualistic view of society as well as a conception of liberation that essentially conceives of ‘people as children and as male.’ Thus, although Chodorow reads Marcuse with much more sympathy and understanding than does Fromm, she nevertheless confirms some of Fromm’s claims: specifically, the view that Marcuse’s notion of liberation is indeed tantamount to advocating ‘never growing up or moving beyond childhood.’

    By valorizing the ‘narcissistic mode of relating to the world and unconstrained bodily pleasure,’ Chodorow writes, Marcuse retains ‘the psychological stance of the infant,’ and as a consequence, precludes from his theory of society ‘those very intersubjective relationships that should form the core of any social and political vision.’

    ‘Refusal to accept separation from the libidinous object (or subject),’ ‘the union of the self with a whole world of love and pleasure’ denies that object or external world its own separateness and choice, requiring that others be objects, not subjects, and denying subjectivity to the other, who can only be a narcissistic extension of the self and an object instrumental for one’s own gratification.

    By pointing out the psychologically regressive and profoundly asocial features of this theory, Chodorow makes it evident that a repudiation of Marcuse’s vision (such as one finds in Fromm) by no means implies a repressive attitude towards sexuality per se. It is one thing to put forth a materially based theory of liberation. It is another to use Freud’s drive theory to articulate a social philosophy that denies human agency and intersubjectivity while promoting a radically restricted conception of human experience.”

    Marcuse interpreted Fromm’s work rather uncharitably if not obtusely:

    “The effort to brand Fromm’s ethics as ideological finds further expression in Marcuse’s treatment of the concept of productiveness. This highest of Frommian values, Marcuse claims, refers mainly to traits that ‘show forth in good business, administration, service, with the reasonable expectation of recognized success’ (EC, pp. 236- 237). That is to say, Fromm’s conception is not different from the ‘goal of the healthy individual under the performance principle’ (EC, p. 236). That these remarks grossly misrepresent the meaning of Fromm’s formulation is obvious from a close reading of Fromm’s work. Far from defining the ‘productive orientation’ in terms of traits required for ‘good business’ and ‘recognized success,’ Fromm’s writings—e.g., the analyses of the origins of the work ethic and the marketing character—constitute a powerful critique of precisely these values. It may be, as Henry Pachter suggests in his review of The Sane Society, that Fromm’s ‘term is most unfortunate because it can be confused with one of the most outrageously alienated idols of capitalism.’ But it is nevertheless the case, as Pachter goes on to remark, that

    ‘Nothing… is farther from Fromm’s intention than the idea of productiveness for its own sake. If we look into the descriptive part, [of the book, Fromm’s] … meaning becomes clear: productiveness is an attitude towards life, the universe and mankind which allows the development of a person’s full potentialities; it is what Friedrich Schiller and Huizinga call ‘play,’ and no sadder indictment of our alienation could be found than this lack of a proper word for our most profound yearning and the central conception of a non-alienated self-realization.’

    Only by playing on the repressive connotations of the term ‘productiveness’ (which, throughout Eros and Civilization, has been linked with the performance principle [see, e.g., EC, pp. 199-202]) and by simply ignoring Fromm’s definition, can Marcuse suggest that the latter partakes of
    the features of the given reality principle.”

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