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Thursday, March 10, 2011


What can we say of these three defenses of liberal education: as the stigmata of the upper classes, as the royal road to upward mobility, and as the entree into the Great Conversation? For the defense of liberal education as the distinguishing mark of aristocracy, I have nothing but contempt. If all this to-ing and fro-ing, all these reading assignments, term essays, multiple-choice examinations, and curriculum revisions have no further point than to put the latest polish on those born to, or headed for, the upper reaches of society, then I for one shall turn my attention to more honest labor, like the cleaning out of sewers. As for the second rationale for liberal education, as an instrument of upward mobility, I have no objection to ambition, and given the American pyramid of wealth and income, whose shape, incidentally, has remained essentially unchanged in at least eighty years, save to become even steeper, it is perfectly sensible for those lower down to attempt to climb to a more comfortable and secure position. But unfortunately for those of us whose task it is to administer the requisite doses of liberal education, there is an entirely accidental relationship between the content of that education and its function as a leg up for shirts who would be suits. Entry to the privileged positions in society could as easily be determined by one's ability to write a poem or practice calligraphy, as in Mandarin China.

As for the third defense of liberal education as admission to the Great Conversation, you will no doubt have discerned that I am more than half in love with it. I have spent my life listening to, and even on occasion contributing a few words to, that great conversation. If all the injustices of this world had been rectified, if all the suffering had been alleviated, if, in the words of Isaiah, every valley had been exalted, every mountain and hill made low, if the crooked had been made straight, and the rough places plain, then I could justify to myself and to others a life spent initiating young men and women into the Great Conversation, for there is no denying that it is wonderful talk.

But there is an even deeper, more compelling justification for liberal education that can reassure and strengthen those of us who have devoted our lives to it. The true rationale for liberal education, in my considered and passionate judgment, is our society's desperate need for a reservoir of negative thought -- and for some protected place in which young men and women can explore what my sons, some years ago, would have called the dark side of the force. In these remarks, as in much that I have done, I draw for insight and inspiration on the work of my old friend and co-author, Herbert Marcuse.

I take as my texts two of Marcuse's most profound and provocative phrases: "surplus repression," which makes its appearance in his early work, EROS AND CIVILIZATION, and "repressive desublimation," from his best known book, ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN. By an explication of the notion of surplus repression, and a close reading of a single paragraph from the chapter on repressive desublimation, I can, I think, lay before you a deeper justification of liberal education that will explain both how it plays a central role in the critique and reformation of society, and why it is so appropriately undertaken at that moment in late adolescence and early adulthood which we in the United States identify as the undergraduate years.

Marcuse, who as a member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, participated in the great early twentieth century attempt to fuse the central insights of Marx and Freud, begins EROS AND CIVILIZATION by accepting the pessimistic thesis of Freud's CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, that some measure of psychic repression is the necessary precondition for the organized social existence of humanity.

The new-born infant does not possess a coherent rational self or ego with which to negotiate its relationship to the external world. Indeed, it does not yet so much as possess a conception of itself in contradistinction to its surroundings. What we think of as the ordinary thought-processes of reality orientation - the distinction of self and other, the recognition of relations of space, time, and causality, the distinction between desire and satisfaction, wish and actuality - are in fact secondary accomplishments, painfully acquired in the wake of initial and continuing frustrations. Each of the stages of what we consider normal childhood development has a profoundly ambivalent significance for the child, at one and the same time a source of power, satisfaction, and self-esteem, and a suffering of frustration, pain, and rage.

One example can perhaps stand for the entire years-long process. Little babies are at first unable to express their desires, of course, save by the inefficient method of crying. Still, a fortunate baby will succeed in getting its parent's attention by crying, and the parent will become hyper-sensitively attuned to those slight variations in the cry which indicate whether it is hunger, fatigue, colic, or teething that is the cause. Eventually, the baby learns to sit up in a high chair and eat with its hands or a spoon, and [we may suppose] it learns as well that when it waves its hands and makes a demanding noise, it gets a cookie. The baby, note, will be deeply ambivalent about this learned behavior, for what the baby wants [or so Freud persuasively tells us] is to have its hunger, or its desire for a cookie, instantaneously gratified, without even the temporary frustration of waiting until the parent decodes the cry and responds. But though this state of affairs has come about at the cost of frustration and pain, it is also a source of power and gratification. By learning how to command its parent's response, the baby can get the cookie. What is more, the parent is likely to respond with manifest pleasure to the baby's ability to sit up and communicate its wants.

One day, something inexplicable, terrible, frustrating, painful happens. The baby makes its demanding noise, with the cookie in full view just outside its reach, and the parent, instead of immediately handing it over, as has happened every day for as long as the baby can remember, now picks up the cookie, holds it tantalizingly before the baby, and says in what can only be construed as a deliberately sadistic voice, "Can you say 'cookie'?" Well, all of us know the rest of this story, for all of us have lived through it. The acquisition of language, the mastery of one's bowels, the control of one's temper - all of the stages in development that make one an adult human being who is recognizably a member of a society - all have a negative side, a side associated with shame, rage, pain, frustration, resentment, a backside, as we learn to think of it, as well as a positive side associated with praise, self-esteem, public reward, power, satisfaction - a front, which, as our language very nicely suggests, is both an officially good side and also a pretense, a fake.

By and large, we do not forget the frustration, the pain, the rage. We repress it, drive it out of consciousness, deny it, put it behind us, as we like to say. But, like our own backsides, and the feces which issue from them, they remain, and exercise a secret, shameful attraction for us.

This brief reminder of our common heritage makes it clear that the repression of "unacceptable" wishes - as Freud so quaintly and aptly labeled them in his earlier writings - is an essential precondition for our development of the ability to interact effectively with the world, and with one another. Mastery of our own bodies, mastery of language, the psychic ability, and willingness, to defer gratification long enough to perform necessary work, the ability to control destructive, and self-destructive, rages or desires - civilization, society, culture, survival depend upon them. But necessary though they are, they are painful; throughout our lives, we carry, repressed, the delicious, illicit fantasies of total, immediate, uncompromised gratification, of instantaneous, magical fulfillment, of the permission to indulge the desires that have been stigmatized as negative.

With great flair, Marcuse combines Freud's thesis, of the necessity of some repression for the existence of human civilization, with the central concept of Marx's political economy - surplus value. According to Marx, it is the labor required for the production of commodities that regulates their exchange in a capitalist market. Inasmuch as workers sell their own capacity for labor in the market like a commodity, through the wage bargain, competition eventually sets its price - the wage - at a level equal to the amount of labor required to produce that capacity, which is to say the amount of labor required to produce the workers' food, clothing, and shelter. This labor, Marx says, can be called "necessary labor," for in any economic system whatever, it must be performed if the workers are to be able to remain alive and continue their labors. But, Marx argues, the workers are forced, by the conditions of the labor market, to work more hours than is embodied in their consumption goods, and the extra labor time, through the processes of market exchange, is transmuted into surplus exchange value. That surplus value, Marx demonstrates, is the source of the profits, interest, and rents that the propertied classes appropriate. In sum, Marx asserts, capitalism rests upon the capitalist appropriation of surplus value, or, more succinctly, upon exploitation.

Marcuse transfers these concepts of necessary and surplus labor to the sphere of the psyche, and rechristens them "necessary and surplus repression." Just as there is a certain quantum of necessary labor that must be performed in any society, so there is a certain amount of necessary repression, as we have seen, that is the precondition of human existence as such. But in some societies, just as workers are forced to perform more than merely necessary labor, its fruits being appropriated by a ruling class, so in those same societies, and most particularly in capitalist society, workers, and indeed others as well, have inflicted upon them extra, or surplus, repression, whose function is not to make human society in general possible, but rather to serve and support the particular exploitative, unjust, repressive economic and political institutions and policies of the ruling classes.

Over and above the deferral of gratification demanded by the exigencies of nature and human intercourse, the capitalist workplace demands an additional level of work discipline, of self-denial, of obedience, of surplus repression. Marcuse notes, by way of rough proof, the extraordinary fact that despite the doubling, trebling, quadrupling of worker productivity achieved by technological advance, the average work week has shortened only slightly, if at all, in the past three-quarters of a century.

In ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, in what has always seemed to me one of the truly inspired texts of twentieth century social theory, Marcuse deploys this insight to explain the structure and conditions of social protest, and the subjective psychological sources of the energy that fuels social change. The argument goes like this: The energy on which we draw for work, for art, and for politics, as well as for sex, is the fund of originally undifferentiated libidinal energy with which we are born, and which we attach to various objects through the psychic processes of sublimation, displacement, and cathexis. The gratifications we obtain are, as Freud poignantly shows us, always somewhat diminished, compromised, shadowed by the unavoidable adjustments to reality. The pleasures of useful, fruitful, unalienated labor, the satisfactions of artistic creation, even the sensuous delights of sexual intercourse, necessarily fall short of what is longed for in our repressed fantasies. To give a single, elementary example: all of us who write books of philosophy will acknowledge, I imagine, that in our most secret dreams, we lust after a review that begins something like this: "Not since Plato wrote THE REPUBLIC has a work of such power and brilliance burst upon the scene" - after which, we become instantaneously rich, young, thin, and flooded with absolutely risk-free offers of polymorphic sexual satisfaction. What actually happens, if we are fortunate, is that we are moderately favorably reviewed, by someone with his or her own fantasies of instant gratification, and have the genuine, but subdued pleasure, in years to come, of stumbling on references to our production, or of encounters with a praising reader.

Now, Marcuse suggests, there is real surplus psychic repression inflicted on all of us in our society, most particularly on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and the established, institutionalized structures of political and economic repression being what they are, it takes an enormous, painful, dangerous mobilization of psychic energy to fight those structures and reduce the quantum of surplus repression. But since the dangers of revolt and resistance are so great, and most especially because the repression has been internalized in each of us in the form of an unnecessarily punitive set of self-inflicted restraints, a reasoned, measured, realistic call for incremental improvements is unlikely to elicit the burst of revolutionary energy needed for any change at all. "Workers of the world, unite! You have a modest reduction in surplus repression to win!" is not a slogan calculated to bring suffering men and women into the streets.

What in fact happens, Marcuse suggests, is that revolutionary change is energized by the utopian, siren call of liberation, which, whatever the language in which it is couched, is experienced subjectively as a promise of the gratification of those infantile fantasies of instantaneous, magical, total gratification which lurk within us all. Workers' liberation, Black liberation, Women's liberation, Gay liberation - all appeal, necessarily, meretriciously, and yet productively, to these universal repressed fantasies. Only the tapping of such powerful wellsprings of psychic energy can move us to the heroic feats required for even modest reductions in surplus repression.

The upshot of every revolution is therefore disappointment, for no matter how successful the revolution, it cannot, in the nature of things, liberate us from necessary repression. After the victory celebrations, we must still go to work, use the toilet, submit ourselves to some code or other of dress, of speech, of sexual conduct. Despite the inevitable and repeated disappointments, we must keep alive the fantasies, and attach them to our political aspirations, for they are the essential motor of real world social, economic, and political progress.

In this project, the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential, and rather surprising, role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works, which we customarily consider the appropriate content of a liberal education, play a continuingly subversive role. They keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.

To explain somewhat how even the most seemingly abstract works of art perform this function, let me read to you a single paragraph from Marcuse's discussion, and then explicate it by reference to a Bach fugue. Here is the passage:

"The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the "promesse de bonheur." In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order." [ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, pp. 61-62]

Consider a Bach fugue, which can stand, in our analysis, for any work of art or literature that submits itself, as all true art must, to some canon of formal constraint. We could as well consider a sonnet, a portrait, a statue, or indeed a Platonic dialogue. The rules governing the composition of a fugue are extremely strict. They constitute, psychologically speaking, a repression of the composer's instinctual, creative energies. In the hands of a novice, the fugue-form is a strait-jacket, painfully forcing one to adjust one's musical line in unnatural ways. It is, speaking at the very deepest psychological level, the equivalent of being required to use the toilet, or to say "cookie" before being fed. But in the hands of Bach, all is transformed. Bach's fugues seem effortless. They magically transcend the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them.

The result is sheer, sensuous beauty which is, at one and the same time, liberated from the constraints of form and completely consonant with those constraints. The fugue thus holds out, magically, the promise of total satisfaction, the "promesse de bonheur," that is to be found in the unconscious of each of us. In the same fashion, a Dickinson poem, a Rodin sculpture, a Platonic dialogue, a van Gogh still life reawaken in us the fantasy of perfect, effortless gratification. These works of art and literature remind us of the possibility that there is a life better than the network of compromises in which we are enmeshed, a second dimension to existence in which freedom replaces necessity, happiness replaces suffering.

The great works of humanistic writing, be they philosophy, history, theology, or criticism, accomplish the same end. The pure, rational arguments of Spinoza's ETHICS recall for us the image of a world in which reason is an instrument of liberation, not of domination. The sheer formal beauty of a mathematical proof, the effortless derivation of the most powerful conclusions from apparently innocent premises, holds out to us the hope of instantaneous ecstasy.

In all seriousness, I suggest to you that this is the deepest justification for keeping alive the great tradition of liberal arts and letters in our colleges and universities. Not as a patina for modern aristocrats, not as an instrument of upward mobility, not even as an introduction to the Great Conversation, but as a way of putting young men and women in touch with their repressed fantasies of gratification, in such a fashion as to awaken in them the hope, the dream, the unquenchable thirst for liberation from which social progress must come.

By way of final illustration, I should like to close with a true story. More than forty years ago, I taught for a year as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. One semester I was assigned an Introduction to Philosophy that met, thanks to the peculiar schedule pattern then in use at Rutgers, on Monday mornings at 8:00 a.m. and Thursday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. For the only time in my teaching career, I assigned a casebook - a collection of readings from the great philosophers - instead of a group of complete original works, and each Monday morning and Thursday afternoon, I soldiered away, "covering" the material, as we delicately put it in the trade.

Some time in the late Fall, I got to Hume, who was represented by a few well-chosen pages from Part iii of Book One of the TREATISE - which, as some of you will know, is the locus for his famous sceptical critique of causal reasoning. I was dead bored with the material, with the course, and with myself by this time, and I can confidently assure you that I was not doing a superlative job of teaching. I had studied Hume first as a Freshman, then as a Sophomore, then while writing my doctoral dissertation, and innumerable times since. I was so thoroughly inoculated against the force of his arguments that I could scarcely recall a time when I had found them even mildly provocative.

One day, after class, a young man came up to talk to me, very agitated. He had been troubled by Hume's arguments he said - I found this rather astonishing, as you can imagine - and had gone to talk things over with his priest. The priest, whose seminary training had not prepared him for this sort of problem from his parishioners, referred him to the Office of Information of the Diocese. The young man called the Diocese, and was referred to a Monsignor, who, after listening to his concerns, said abruptly, "Well, some people think that. But we don't," and hung up the phone. What should he do?, the student wanted to know.

Let me tell you, I was humbled by the episode. Despite my best efforts to deaden the impact of the text, and the utterly unpromising conditions of an 8:00 a.m. introductory class, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, seized that young man by the scruff of the neck, and given him a shaking that bid fair to liberate him from a lifetime of unthinking subservience to received authority.

That is what a liberal education can accomplished, at its best, and that is why, in every college and university, a protected sanctuary must be preserved for undergraduate liberal education.


J.Vlasits said...

Again, Professor Wolff, a great post. I think, however, that despite the way you made your point through 20th century social theory, your argument merges very nicely with the third classic defense. What makes the Conversation a Great one is, I think, its incendiary nature. To take one example that I'm particularly familiar with, classical Greek philosophy (let's just say from Thales to Epictetus), these texts have been used and abused by countless generations as a way of revitalizing, subverting and reworking the norms of their day. Augustine's use of Plato, Aquinas's use of Aristotle, Descartes's use of Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics (against Aristotle/Aquinas), Newton's use of Lucretius, Nietzsche's use of Heraclitus and the Sophists (against Plato/Kant/etc), Elizabeth Anscombe's use of Aristotle/Aquinas--you get the picture. Being a member of this conversation puts a whole mess of texts with powerful arguments into your power. The image of the classics as the realm of Oxbridge fuddy-duddies must be a very recent phenomenon. I cannot agree with you more that philosophy (and art and literature, no doubt) is the kind of thing that sparks criticism and change. Thanks again for your posts on the humanities.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This is a very good point about the endlessly revisionist and confrontational nature of the "Conversation." Immersing onself in it trains one, among other things, to see through arguments and take a principled stand. It is also the case that reading a great author from an earlier period enables us to see flaws or weaknesses in our own positions that we might overlook in a conversation among people all of whom share the same unexamined presuppositions. Teaching Plato's Republic this semester has had just that effect on me.

English Jerk said...

Is there any inconsistency between the claim that the Conversation serves as a spur to reflection and that it holds out the hope of total gratification? For me, the experience of literature is an experience of affective power necessarily combined with a feeling of perplexity, of bafflement; and my interpretive impulse arises from that combination. The experience of literature thus seems to me rather remote from gratification, not least because the powerful affects involved almost never amount of unalloyed pleasure.

GTChristie said...

Last May as I signed an online petition and prepared to blog about this very subject, I got sidetracked by my discovery of your blog. You were in the final stages of the memoir at the time. I've stuck around ever since, at times impatient (I doubt I will ever buy into Marx though I understand why he says what he does) and at other times impressed by your ability to see beyond the partisan and your somewhat rambling but effective ability to bring ideas into clear focus. In this particular post even your writing style (which is clean but up to now, I have thought, a bit garrulous) has scored a bullseye.

Meantime I never blogged about the shutdown of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University UK. It was not just the sidetrack. It's because I could not muster a good enough argument, other than blustery indignation.

Now you have managed even that, and things have come full circle. It is a strange devotion, that a nominally conservative thinker such as myself should admire you as much as I now do. But there it is. My admiration is cemented, Professor. This is the finest defense of the humanities I've seen, other than the booklength firepower of Nussbaum.

But there's one dimension to your argument I must point out. Unlike most of your readers (I would guess), the amount of fiction I have read after the age of 12 is minimal because I've never seen the point, with so much reality to think about. I have never seen such a succinct explanation of what I may have missed. I'm not going to make up for it now ... there isn't time. But I'm glad somebody finally gave a coherent argument for why that stuff survives. LOL.

May you live as long as you please and enjoy every minute of it, Professor. Thank you.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

GT, I was deeply moved by your comment. Thank you. As should be ovvious, I am fiercely partisan [about many things, such as classical music, in addition to politics and economics], but I like to think that I am not an ideologue. I can see and respect powerful arguments on the other side. Hence my pleasure in teaching Plato's Republic and the essays of Michael Oakeshott. I shall strive to live up to your praising words. They are worth more to me than pearls.