Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Marcuse Comments

I delved into this after I’d pretty much structured my Metropolis essay. Marcuse’s thoughts hit the heart of what I was after, at least on my reading of it, and for me, tied together a lot of the things we’ve been looking at. (It is, perhaps, the “heart” connecting head and hands…)

Marcuse starts out strong right out of the gate in the opening line: “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technological process. (1) Also on that page, he writes: “The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. … Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premises.” I can’t help but connect this to the “peril of perfection” and the need, as Dewey said, to constantly challenge, to keep reaching. If we think we’ve got it already, we’ve lost it.

I think he beautifully and humanely sets up how we’ve lost our freedoms, and how subtle this is, how it comes, in fact, under the guise of freedom. For “Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” People think they’ve got what they want, we have stuff, we can vote for someone. “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”  (7) on 4 he sets up the idea of needs as distraction: “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” Contrasts “true and false needs” (4-5), false being those which we’re told we need – material stuff, and true ones, being means for survival. (5) It’s pursuit of false needs, he says, that stands in the way of our true freedom: “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own.” (7) We need to wake up…

Loss of Freedom

Idea of introjections (10), and whether we still maintain “inner freedom.” I used the example of Daylight Savings Time to show how deeply ingrained ideas are that we accept as just the way things are. Marcuse writes, “Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual.” … “The result is not adjustment, but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole.” (10) We accept things as they are. Why do we get up and go to work, to school? Because that’s how it is. The “apparatus imposes” its will on our “labor time and free time, on the material and intellectual culture.” (3) We are less than free in all ways. But this unfreedom is not brought upon us by force. No, he claims, “If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things – not the law of physics but the law of their society.” (11) Echoing Polany, Marcuse (2) talks of “freedom of enterprise” as also allowing us the freedom to starve – in his words “not altogether an blessing.”

As Marcuse writes on (16), “‘Progress’ is not a neutral term.” Indeed, it’s not. We tend to see it in terms of technology, not betterment of the human condition. However, these need not be mutually exclusive, which is where Marcuse takes his argument.


Talked about this a lot in my Metropolis essay, I’ll leave it to that. Except to include this quote, as it’s so strong: “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing.” (33)


In his discussion of ‘one dimensionality” (11) I’m finding resonance with the idea I’ve been playing with of “unflattening” – in terms of presenting information in a dimensional way (not necessarily literally). Also am connecting this to thoughts of multi-discilplinarity, and the troubles of specialization – no one can talk to one another. Realize I’m giving a flat perspective on this at this point.


Moved throughout by Marcuse’s humanity. This idea that “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2) He defines what these new forms of freedom would mean in multiple realms: “Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living.” Continues to explain what political and intellectual freedom would mean. (4) He sets up the terms on how freedom could happen, “Indeed, society must first create the material prerequisites of freedom for all its members before it can be a free society; it must first create the wealth before being able to distribute it according to the freely developing needs of the individual;” AND the KEY here: “it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40) He continues, 42) “slaves must be free for their liberation before they can become free…” A hope filled premise: “This is a society in which the former objects of productivity first become the human individuals who plan and use the instruments of their labor for the realization of their own humane needs and faculties. For the first time in history, men would act freely and collectively under and against the necessity which limits their freedom and their humanity.” (42-3) And finally, “If it could lead to self-determination at the very base of human existence, namely in the dimension of necessary labor, it would be the most radical and most complete revolution in history.” (44) And now I’m cheering, let’s do this.

However, that he states this can come through advanced industrialization, not so sure. Yes, I agree we have the means (power) to feed, shelter everyone and hence the responsibility to do so. But this passage on 36, “Complete automation in the realm of necessity would open the dimension of free time as the one in which man’s private and societal existence would constitute itself. This would be the historical transcendence towards a new civilization.” --- Would it really? I can’t help but think of the free people in Wall-E – are they really free? It seems to me (and I realize I need to read this more) that the humanity he sees so well, is suggesting can be restored through better technology. Something about the “pacification of existence” (16) doesn’t sit quite right.

That little bit said, Marcuse lays out the problem well, he pulls back the wool on the system we’ve been brought into, bought into, and it’s a powerful, indispensable work at making sense of what’s happened, and thinking about what might be. – Nick  

Thought about including “who watches the watchmen” in my Time essay, and using this passage from 41, “Who educates the educators, and where is the proof that they are in possession of ‘the good?’” If, as I agree with, education is the key to liberation, how do we ensure it’s good stuff? Back to Dewey, this is the point, we always have to keep asking such questions, always being critical, never thinking we’ve got it all right. – N  


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