Utopia limited The sixties and the emergence of the postmodern
By Marianne DeKoven
Duke University Press ISBN: 0-8223-3269-8
Modern to Postmodern in Herbert Marcuse
No sixties writer or thinker of Herbert Marcuse's stature and significance has fallen more dramatically than he off the current intellectual map. His Frankfurt School colleagues Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, by contrast, remain major presences. Benjamin, in particular, is enjoying growing prominence, as an issue of Critical Inquiry devoted entirely to his work attests. Theodor Adorno is also widely read. Earlier in the history of postmodernist studies, he was frequently used as an exemplum of modernist elitism in his condemnation of the "culture industry" and his attack on jazz. More recently, and more appreciatively, current theorists turn to his crucial work on aesthetics, and, with Max Horkheimer, on the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Yet Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (ODM), one of the few most influential books of the sixties though now maintaining only a marginal critical-theoretical presence, is indebted to, and makes essentially the same central argument as, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno's "negativity" is always implicated in (bourgeois-identified) "affirmative" culture, just as all resistance is subsumed by Marcuse's one-dimensional society. Adorno assumes the impossibility of the achievement of the goals of enlightenment just asMarcuse argues that instrumental reason always adheres to domination.
Marcuse's oeuvre has been attacked on many grounds; it has also been cited and defended, over the years and up to the present-kept alive, though fairly minimally, in critical discussion. It is not my purpose here to agree or disagree with either attackers or defenders, or, for that matter, to make a case for or against Marcuse's work. I will however offer some speculation concerning reasons for his near disappearance, in the course of discussing One-Dimensional Man as a key representative sixties text.
Like Dialectic of Enlightenment, One-Dimensional Man is a critique of instrumental, technological, scientific rationality (Marcuse calls it Reason, Horkheimer and Adorno, Enlightenment). Reason or Enlightenment is the regime of domination that has produced not just fascism (Horkheimer and Adorno's emphasis, writing as they did in the mid-forties) but also-Marcuse's emphasis as he writes in the late fifties and early sixties-the all-encompassing, enveloping bureaucracies, the totally administered societies, of both late capitalism and also Soviet-style communism. For these Frankfurt School theorists, Reason or Enlightenment is a highly complex phenomenon, with a long history, explicable only as a conjunction of philosophical, social, political, cultural, aesthetic, psychic, as well as historical problematics (Frankfurt School Critical Theory saw itself as a synthesis of the distinct disciplines relevant to these problematics, and in fact as a critique of the compartmentalized splintering of those disciplines as a symptom and effect of Reason/Enlightenment).
As a characteristic and profoundly influential sixties text, One-Dimensional Man, though it does not use the word "revolution," is committed to total utopian political-social-cultural-psychic transformation. Contemporary society, culture, thought, and life, in Marcuse's analysis, are so thoroughly alienated that only an entirely different order of existence offers meaningful hope. All resistance or subversion short of total transformation is not only ineffective, it is impossible, because it is immediately absorbed by "one-dimensional" society's uncanny powers of cooptation-in Marcuse's terms, its power to unite opposites and cancel the dialectic. This underlying utopian orientation toward total revolutionary change as the only alternative to total domination marks One-Dimensional Man as a text of modernity, and, particularly, as a text of sixties utopian modernity. However, many of Marcuse's arguments and analyses are at the same time situated within emergent paradigms of postmodernity.
The book is divided into three sections: "One-Dimensional Society," "One-Dimensional Thought," and "The Chance of the Alternatives." Not given its own section, but underlying the entire text and evident in the book's subtitle, "Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society," which virtually equates "society" with "man," is a commitment to the free individual, living an unalienated life, liberated from one-dimensional society and thought. This fully liberated existence would be possible only under the aegis of a new reality principle, to use the terms of Eros and Civilization (E&C), which would evolve beyond totalized domination. E&C argues that the reality principle theorized by Freud, which Marcuse diagnoses as premised on domination, is no longer necessary in the imminent world of a technology so advanced that it has the potential to liberate human beings from all alienated toil. This utopian view of technology's capability to end the struggle for existence underlies much sixties utopian revolutionary ideology (and modernity's utopian vision in general). Technology, a key element of Reason's domination, therefore, contains the dialectical seeds of human liberation from that domination. The Marxist paradigm is evident here, with the great social and economic power developed by capitalism (here generalized to include Soviet-style communism) accorded the capability of transcending its own structures of oppression. Revolutionary agency, in this analysis, has shifted from the proletariat-no longer a revolutionary class, according to Marcuse, having been coopted by the gratifications of administered society-to those whom he saw as having the least stake in the paralyzing benefits of the system: the students, African Americans, third world revolutionaries, and, later, feminists, who were beginning to rise up around him as he wrote. He retained until his death in 1979 his commitment to the "new social movements" he did so much to foster and inspire. In theorizing the total revolution of modernity, and at the same time seeing the disparate, "single-issue" political movements of postmodernity as its only possible agents, Marcuse powerfully inhabited, marked, and perhaps helped to bring about the sixties transition from the modern to the postmodern.
Often in ODM, the difference between a modern and a postmodern stance involves a slight shift of perspective, but one that is premised on utterly incompatible sets of underlying assumptions. The introduction, titled "The Paralysis of Criticism: Society without Opposition," establishes the key central arguments of the text. "One-dimensional" does not indicate flatness, sameness, or lack of depth. On the contrary, one-dimensional society is full of variegated pleasures and gratifications. What it lacks is the second dimension of antithesis-of criticism and opposition, as the title of the introduction makes clear. It lacks the other-dimensionality Marcuse ascribes to the dialectic, where terms (ideas, social and political formations, structures of feeling, lifeworlds) opposed and in contradiction to those that exist have a palpable reality. In one-dimensional society (society of domination without opposition) and one-dimensional (nondialectical) thought, only what exists has any reality. Yet, as I have indicated, the force of this book for sixties radicals depended on the contradictory view that one-dimensional society and thought do indeed harbor the potential for their own revolutionary overthrow. As Marcuse says in the introduction:
One-Dimensional Man will vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society. I do not think that a clear answer can be given. Both tendencies are there, side by side-and even the one in the other. The first tendency is dominant, and whatever preconditions for a reversal may exist are being used to prevent it. Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change. (xlvii)
The "vacillation" Marcuse acknowledges, and which does indeed characterize the shifting stance of his argument, can be seen as precisely the dominant modern/emergent postmodern location of the text. Modernity's belief in the meaningful possibility of utopian revolution is still a powerful force for Marcuse, despite his evident pessimism concerning any realistic prospect for bringing it about. Only in utter, explosive, even catastrophic change does there lie any hope of redemption from the "containment" of one-dimensional society: hope of meaningful, rather than empty and repressive, human liberation. But in his analysis of the almost uncanny effectiveness of one-dimensional society and one-dimensional thought not just in producing and reproducing the one-dimensional human but also in making him/her more than superficially content-in substituting powerful gratifications for totally liberated fulfillment-Marcuse describes the indifferentiated social/cultural field of postmodernity. The substitution of limitless noncontradictory difference for massive dialectical blocks of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, a substitution which characterizes Marcuse's one-dimensional society in its elimination of both domination and revolutionary negation or Great Refusal, is a prime marker of postmodernity. Foucauldian flows of power, encompassing continual movement back and forth of incomplete, continually contested and reconstituted hegemony alongside local, partial, continually reformulated resistance, where there is no monolithic domination or total revolution, constitute a neutral or positive view of what Marcuse damns as one-dimensional society, culture, and thought.
Throughout the text, Marcuse's analyses of one-dimensionality can be characterized as denunciation of what many postmodern theories affirm as the end of oppressive master narratives and dualisms. His analysis of the ways in which one-dimensional society, culture, and thought coopt, absorb, neutralize, and render ineffective all opposition also often describes what has come to be positively valued in some postmodern theories as complicitous critique or resistance from within (Hutcheon). This complicitous critique eschews oppressive master narratives of revolution, narratives which really always favor only one or a few oppositional group(s), in favor of broader, more egalitarian, and more realistic notions of everyday tactics (de Certeau). These tactics involve partial, local refunctioning and subversion, not of a totalized domination but of an incomplete, malleable, shifting, continually redefined, recontested, and reinstituted hegemony. This notion of limitless social flexibility, and therefore of potential for (partial, incomplete, local, complicitous) resistance, refunctioning, subversion from within-postmodernism's theory of progressive politics-is precisely what Marcuse describes with great precision and in illuminating detail but sees as one-dimensional, advanced industrial society's ability to contain all qualitative change. What appears to a postmodern view as society's and culture's malleability, mutability, and therefore potential for progressive change is, from modernity's point of view, inevitably futile and illusory, because coopted and recontained. But postmodernity's point of view in some ways involves only a slight shift in emphasis, from a negative focus on the recontainment postmodernism acknowledges as both inevitable and contestable to a positive emphasis on potentialities for resistance.
In defining in the introduction what he means by transcendence of the given, Marcuse provides a remarkable instance of the at once subtle and massive distance between the dominant modern and the emergent postmodern paradigms in this text. Revolutionary transcendence, for Marcusean/Marxist dialectical materialist theory, must be both a total negation of the existing social order and also a real potentiality within that order. As Marcuse says, "the terms 'transcend' and 'transcendence' are used throughout in the empirical, critical sense: they designate tendencies in theory and practice which, in a given society, 'overshoot' the established universe of discourse and action toward its historical alternatives (real possibilities)" (xliii). Revolutionary transcendence is therefore "opposed to all metaphysics by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence" (xliii). In insisting that he is concerned only with revolutionary potentialities that actually inhere in the historical materiality of the given social order, Marcuse makes a remarkable statement: "social theory is concerned with the historical alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces" (xliv). Marcuse goes on from here to argue in forceful, uncompromising terms that "contemporary society seems to be capable of containing social change-qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, new modes of human existence" (xliv). All aspects of contemporary society attest to its successful "integration of opposites" (xliv), most notably the opposite of transcendent opposition. Yet the phrase "alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces" haunts this denunciation of the ineluctable containment (hence neutralization) of resistance and integration of opposites. This shadowy yet powerful, uncanny presence of subversive tendencies and forces points more toward a postmodern view of hegemony always in dynamic relation to resistance than toward a modern view of inherent contradictions in relations of production inevitably generating revolution through the agency of the self-consciousness of the exploited class. Marcuse retains the modern paradigm of the necessity for total revolutionary transcendence-what he calls the Great Refusal-at the same time that his most realistic hope lodges in a view, strongly inflected toward postmodernism, of a vulnerable, if not incomplete hegemony riddled with ("haunted by") potentialities of resistance.
In the key passage in which Marcuse enumerates his two "contradictory hypotheses," several other moments warrant attention. First, Marcuse says that "both tendencies are there, side by side-and even the one in the other." He does not expand on this notion, but if meaningful change were somehow to inhabit total containment, and containment were to inhabit meaningful change, that would produce precisely the postmodern field of simultaneous, continuous, mutually imbricated hegemony and resistance.
The closing sentence of the "two contradictory hypotheses" passage also contains some notable formulations. That sentence, again, reads as follows: "Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change." By substituting "catastrophe" for "accident" at the end of the sentence, Marcuse shifts the meaning of the first term, which could encompass any unforeseen event, to connote violent historical upheaval. Given the emphasis on the normalization of the threat of nuclear war as a key symptom of one-dimensional society's integration of opposites elsewhere in the book, Marcuse can be seen as having it in mind in the range of catastrophes that might "alter the situation," enabling meaningful change. This possible reading (only suggested, perhaps not even fully conscious to Marcuse as he writes) gives a sense of the dire pessimism Marcuse feels concerning the possibility for revolutionary change.
Further, even such a catastrophe will be helpless to "bring about the change" unless "the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man." This sentence makes clear the supreme agency Marcuse accords to intellect and consciousness-to critical thought. The hope and responsibility for revolutionary change rests ultimately not on the predictable ("determinate") historical workings of a materialist dialectic but on human intellectual capacity. This capacity, formulated by Marcuse as more or less independent of class location in the relations of production, would enable the radical intellectual to use the lever of the dialectic to inhabit a critical oppositionality in order to see beyond the limitations of present existence and envision a utopian alternative. Here we have the faith of modernity in dialectical thought's ability to construct an alternative antithesis entirely outside its thesis, something postmodernity rejects as naive. In postmodernity, there is no Archimedean lever, no position outside ideology or social construction. On the preceding pages, Marcuse makes this modern faith explicit: "the fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible. The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest still is meaningful. But this distinction itself must be validated. Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in the necessity of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing" (xlv-xlvi). Yet at the same time, we see here, in "men must come to see," in "changing their way of life," in "recognition ... subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man," postmodernity's valorization of and emphasis on what in the sixties was called consciousness, which came to be called subjectivity or the subject as the exemplary postmodern site of the political. In this valorization of consciousness as primary agent of social change, Marcuse joins other sixties luminaries who have also more or less vanished off the intellectual (though not popular-cultural) map, such as Norman O. Brown, R. D. Laing, and Erich Fromm.
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