Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN A MINI-TUTORIAL PART THREE

One-Dimensional Man was published by Beacon Press in 1964, but it was written in the several years prior to that date. [Personal aside: The editor-in-chief at Beacon at that time was a wonderful man named Arnold Tovell, an old-fashioned editor who self-consciously cultivated and supported authors whether they produced best-sellers or not. When Harvard University Press foolishly turned down Barrington Moore, Jr.'s most important book, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, because some anonymous reader said it was too heavily influenced by Karl Marx, Tovell snatched it up. It was Tovell who agreed to make a tiny book out of essays by Marcuse, Moore, and myself, publishing them under the provocative title, A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Later on, Tovell gave me a contract for The Poverty of Liberalism on little more than a sketch of a table of contents, after which he also published my Matchette Lectures as The Ideal of the University. Publishing houses don't seem to have editors like that anymore.]


As I observed a few days ago on this blog, America in the late fifties and very early sixties was politically somnolent, save for the Civil Rights Movement, the significance of which for America Marcuse seems totally to have missed. This failure, remarkable for so sophisticated a social critic, can I think be explained in two ways. First of all, despite the fact that by this time Marcuse had lived in the United States for almost thirty years, he was still a thoroughly European intellectual, in whose weltanschauung issues of race simply did not figure. Second, the Civil Rights Movement was not in any way a revolutionary movement. It offered no challenge at all to capitalism, and can actually be seen as seeking to remove pre-capitalist distortions from American economy and society. I do not think that excuses Marcuse's blindness to what was, after all, the most powerful progressive popular movement in America in several generations. But as Erik Erickson observes in a beautiful passage that I chose as the epigram at the beginning of Volume One of my Autobiography, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history." We are, all of us, products of such a coincidence, with all the limitations that implies.


The feeling Marcuse experienced when looking at that America can, I think, accurately be characterized not as anger, but rather as dismay. American seemed to him, flattened, banal, seamlessly upbeat, cheerful, and devoid of all fruitful negativity. This is the significance of the title he chose for his "Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society," to quote the subtitle of the book. There was, he thought, no second dimension of negative thinking in American society that could give rise to protest, rebellion, or revolution. There were, of course, many elements to this dismaying phenomenon, but one key, Marcuse thought, was the paradoxical manner in which the ruling forces in American society had managed to defuse potentially eruptive negative energies not by repressing them -- the response of an earlier stage in capitalist development -- but precisely by permitting their expression, embracing them, commodifying them, and thus depriving them of their power. He called this tactic "repressive desublimation."


To explain this puzzling phrase, I need to range a bit far afield for a moment, reflecting both on the history of culture generally and more particularly on what things were like in the fifties and early sixties. For some of you, this will be a stroll down Memory Lane, for others an excursus into ancient history.


It is always the case that protests against and dissent from the ruling orthodoxy, especially by the young, have taken the form of eroticized deviations from the norm in speech and bodily self-presentation. In some eras, the fleeting revelation of a naked female ankle is enough to scandalize polite society. In other eras, women may bare a breast without occasioning comment or disapproval. When the Beatles burst on the American scene, their appearance shocked Middle America, despite the fact that they wore coats and ties when they performed. It was the outrageous length of their hair -- almost, but not quite covering the napes of their necks -- that announced to everyone the depths of their rebellion. The young especially, who do not yet have the means or the skills to challenge the established order politically or economically, but who are desperate nonetheless to make visible their rejection of the Reality Principle and their embrace of the Pleasure Principle, do the only thing available to them, making minor alterations in their physical appearance. Bare skin, long hair, spiked hair, no hair, facial hair, tattoos, ear piercings, nose piercings, tongue piercings -- it really takes very little to produce hysteria in adults. This ability to drive grown-ups wild is a manifestation of the power of negativity -- of denial, rejection, refusal to conform to whatever norms of behavior and self-presentation happen to rule at the moment. The young frequently are novices at ideological or socio-economic analysis, but they are natural virtuosi at insolence. The merest drawling of a word or slouching of a shoulder can terrify those charged with policing the repression on which capitalist society depends. It is not surprising that during the 1968 Columbia University student protests, the distinguished political scientist David Truman, then a senior member of the university administration, was quoted as saying about the undergraduate protester, Mark Rudd, "It makes me uncomfortable to be in the same room with him."


But with extraordinary prescience, Marcuse realized that modern industrial society had found an entirely new way of containing and defusing the forces of negativity and rebellion -- by embracing them, commodifying them, converting them into sources of profit. So long hair, piercings, tattoos, and the insolence of the slouch became advertising devices, splashed across newspaper and magazine pages to sell soft drinks, jeans, cars, and beer. This unblocking of the negative energies of Eros and Thanatos robbed them of their power to challenge the existing order. It was a desublimation whose effect, against all expectation, was actually repressive, by depriving previously buried wishes, fantasies, and thoughts of their power to destabilize the dominant social and economic order.


Against this paradoxically repressive tolerance of dissent, Marcuse brandished the only weapon he could find: the power of great art. Marcuse's thought here is very deep, very surprising, and in my judgment very powerful. In a speech I have given in several venues titled "What Good is a Liberal Education?" I undertook to explicate Marcuse's thinking. I am going to reproduce here what I said in that speech, despite the fact that the entire text has been posted on box.net. Once again, I apologize for repeating myself. Here is what I said [this will take me into tomorrow to complete]:


"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.



"In One-Dimensional Man, in what has always seemed to me one of the truly inspired texts of twentieth century social theory, Marcuse deploys these 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.


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