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The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse Paperback – March 1, 2007
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About the Author
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was born in Berlin and educated at the universities of Berlin and Freiburg. He fled Germany in 1933 and arrived in the United States in 1934. Marcuse taught at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California, San Diego, where he met Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss as graduate students. He is the author of numerous books, including One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.
Andrew Feenberg is a Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Feenberg worked under Herbert Marcuse as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego.
William Leiss, O.C., Ph.D., FRSC, has been a professor at seven Canadian universities. Leiss worked under Herbert Marcuse as graduate students at the University of California, San Diego.
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So, even if a chair exists, it can only have existential quality through intentional apprehension on the plane of experience. While it is unclear whether this is an assertion or limitation of ontology, the wedding of seer and seen in “pure consciousness” is the fountainhead of all meaning. It is this metaphysical process that gives objects physical content through the mental organization of experience. But this process also admits a certain existential flexibility: “The things of experience are not simply ‘out there’ waiting for us to find them. For them to be revealed as meaningful, we must be drawn to them, preoccupied from out of our concerns. Worlds are thus a function of the future we project for ourselves and the salient objections that emerge on our path to that future.” (Introduction xiv).
“Heidegger had attempted to uncover ultimate structures of the world as such, leaving the particulars of specific worlds to the side as sociological details.” (Introduction xvi). Marcuse, however, would devote his academic life to those details within this philosophical framework. While this phenomenology grew into existentialism for many of its adherents, Marcuse spurned the “existential conception as a metaphysical, not as a historical fact.” (p. 131). For Marcuse, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre inaccurately abstracted the existential/absurdist from its psychic context, and “hypostatized specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes a part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory.” (p.131).
It is here that Marcuse ultimately departs from Heidegger, and, like Marx before him with Hegel, sought to apply the phenomenological outlook to the physical improvement of man. He believed that quotidian experiences in a capitalist society informed certain values which comprised but one world in which self-interest defined the world and the qualities of its objects (money) and values (labor). Because the meaning of a hammer depends on the use to which we experience it, the quality of even basic objects depends on the respective qualities of experience. Accordingly, if we work only to produce something that does not have value to ourselves, capitalism demeans labor—our efforts, actions—to the qualitative similarity of physical tools and we experience these concepts in those terms. Working to produce our own value, however, allows us to freely experience a world in which we understand our physical value without technical limitation.
To remedy this situation, Marcuse advocates phenomenological differentiation—a different world—in his “Note on Dialectic,” (p. 64-71), exploring the Idealism of Hegel/Marx and dialectic contradictions of logical orthodoxy: “To comprehend reality is to comprehend what things really are, and this in turn means rejecting their mere factuality. Rejection is the process of thought as well as of action.” Dialectic thought requires a constant denial of quotidian reality as a sham presentation of facts. As “that-which-is” intrinsically limits its own potentialities (i.e. if it is one thing, it cannot be many), and thus will “distort and falsify reality. Reality is other and more than that codified in the logic and language of facts.” (p. 67). “This is not existentialism. It is something more vital and more desperate: the effort to contradict a reality in which all logic and speech are false to the extent they are part of a mutilated whole.” (p. 68) Marcuse was therefore deeply concerned with the oppressive technocratic expansion of capitalism during his life, a subjugation which masqueraded “as objective and rational condition.” (p. 68).
Marcuse elsewhere expounds on this concern by arguing that technological advancement has resulted in the realm of “civilization” gradually absorbing, redefining, and distorting the realm of “culture.” Marcuse defines “culture” as “some higher dimension of human autonomy and fulfillment, while ‘civilization’ designates the realm of necessity, of socially necessary work and behavior, where man is not really himself and in his own element but is subject to heteronomy, to external conditions and needs.” To Marcuse, ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ comprise the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ dichotomy of human ideals. Marcuse observes that civilization and culture have traditionally existed in a healthy ambivalence in which civilization tries, but fails, to effectuate the aspirational ideals of culture (e.g. “The American Dream”). For it is only through this chasm between the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that the authors of culture—e.g. admitted societal elites—may fashion and refashion collective values. Nevertheless, Marcuse asserts that modern industrial society has so rapidly improved the freedom, equality, and prosperity of the individual that it has eventually consumed, redefined, and ultimately quelled those very ideals: “[T]his tension [between culture and civilization] itself is being suppressed by the systematic, organized incorporation of culture into daily life and work . . . has not the tension between means and ends, cultural values and social facts been resolved in the absorption of the ends by the means . . .” (p. 16).
Marcuse points out that the consequence of civilization’s rapid abridgement of the aforementioned chasm—its apparent attainment of culture vis a vis wealth, democracy, freedom,—is the eventual surrender of the ends to the means by which technocratic society starts to define and distort the very culture it’s supposed to promote (“they help to strengthen the sweep of what is over what can be and ought to be” (p. 17)). “I shall try to show that what is involved here is not the fate of some romantic ideal succumbing to technological progress, nor the progressive democratization of culture, nor the equalization of social classes, but the rather the closing of a vital space for the development of autonomy and opposition, the destruction of a refuge, of a barrier to totalitarianism.” (p. 18). The subjugation of culture stymies the critical formulation of human potentialities—i.e. the creation of our social values and the “indictment” of the civilization that represses them: “Alice’s Restaurant” slashes prices on Veteran’s Day, J. Robert Oppenheimer joins the Manhattan Project, and Andy Warhol markets Nike shoes.
The obliteration of critical normativity, by the conventional phenomenology of our time and the technological conquest, is a frequent theme in Marcuse’s works. In his reflections on Hegel and Marx, Marcuse states that “common sense and science” (p. 64) have since subordinated their dialectic contributions and engineered an “established reality [that] seems promising and productive enough to repel or absorb all alternatives.” (p.64). In this scientific hegemony, the measure of our meaning “becomes quantitative” and delays “new modes of existence with new forms of reason and freedom.” (p. 64).
In total, this book adroitly collects a diverse sampling of the works of Herbert Marcuse. Phenomenology grounded most of his analytical framework, but he appeared to treat that framework as the Marxist heuristic for improving rather than describing the human condition (ala Marx turning Hegel on his head). He addressed the “sociological details” that Heidegger reserved through his phenomenology (which explained ‘being’) and which existentialism wrongly discarded, the Dialectic Idealism of Hegel (which sought to create ‘new being’ through rejection of factual reality), and the political economy of Marx. But while Marcuse’s scholarship spans many philosophical categories, he was a revolutionary foremost devoted to the rejection of reality in its phenomenological, philosophical, and political forms.