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Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Marcuse's analysis, of course, rests on a rejection of the dominant tradition of Western Civilization, as expressed in Freud's pessimism concerning the unavoidability of elevating the Reality Principle over the Pleasure Principle, embracing instead Marx's Romantic interpretation of artistic creativity as the key to understanding humanly fulfilling labor.  [I must now apologize to the readers of this blog for repeating things I have said in other tutorials.  In a perfect world, I could count on every reader to have read everything I have previously posted, either here or on  But since my readers, alas, actually have lives of their own, which must necessarily intrude on their attention to my every word, I shall repeat what I wrote in my tutorial on The Thought of Karl Marx.  This inevitable interpenetration of my various lines of exposition is, I suppose, some evidence that there is a measure of coherence to my thought processes.]  Here is what I said there.
            "Let me begin by talking about the Romantic conception of artistic creativity.  The painters, sculptors, poets, and composers of the medieval and classical period were thought of as artisans, skilled craftsmen who worked for patrons or for entire communities, decorating castles or churches and memorializing military victories and the marriages of princes.  But a different conception of artistic creativity emerged in the early nineteenth century period that we now call the Romantic era.  Artists began to be thought of -- and to think of themselves -- as lonely creators, inspired by their muses to tear works of great art bleeding from their breasts [think Beethoven rather than Bach.]   Thus understood, the act of artistic creation has the following structure:  First, the artist is inspired to form an idea in his or her mind, an idea of a sculpture, a painting, a poem, a sonata, an idea of beauty.  Then, by exercising great skill with chisel and mallet, with canvas and brush, or with pen, the artist makes the idea real, externalizes it, embodies it in some medium, thereby producing the work of art.

            "This self-externalization [or selbstentausserung -- it always sounds better in German] may be achieved with great effort, leaving the artist exhausted, spent, drenched in sweat.  Or it may be accomplished with blinding speed and seemingly little or no effort at all.  But in either case, the completion of the act is, for the artist, a moment of triumph and fulfillment.  The Idea has truly been made Flesh.  The labor is a fulfilling labor, the fatigue a good fatigue.  There it stands, on the page, or on the canvas, or on the podium -- what had begun as an idea in the artist's mind is realized, made real, before him or her.  And the work of art is now available to all of us to see, to hear, to read, to experience and enjoy.  Even those of us incapable of the act of creation can derive great enjoyment from the work, and even inspiration.

            "But this act of creation has a dark side, a negative dimension, for what originally completely and indisputably belonged to the artist alone, as an idea in mind, now takes on a life of its own.  The artist ages, but the work of art does not.  At the moment of creation, the object, the embodied idea, belongs to the artist, but it may -- indeed, it most probably will -- be sold, to someone whose intentions and appreciation may be antithetical to those of the artist.  There is no way that the artist can control how the public experiences the work of art, what the experts choose to say about it, what uses it may be put to, whether for the greater glory of a God whom the artist does not worship, a State to which the artist owes no allegiance, or a collector for whose vulgar tastes the artist has only contempt.  Eventually, the artist may have to ask permission or pay an entry fee to view the work that he or she has created.  Is it any wonder that Emily Dickenson resisted publishing her immortal poems?
            "What began as an act of fulfilling and satisfying self-externalization runs the risk of becoming an act of self-alienation [selbstentfremdung].  The term "alienation" has a double meaning on which Marx plays endlessly.  To make alien, to alienate, means to make an other, an enemy, something that stands over against oneself [gegen-stand].  But to alienate also means to sell, to transfer title from one owner to another.  In this sense, the word is routinely used in the law.  By alienating the work of art, by selling it, the artist becomes alienated from it.  The work of art becomes not simply other than him or herself, but perhaps even inimical, hurtful, an enemy.

            "Marx, with what I consider a stroke of sheer genius, takes the Romantic conception of artistic creativity and generalizes it to all of us, arguing that all human beings are capable of, indeed must engage in, an act with the same fundamental structure -- the act of production.  Human beings, unlike animals, live by purposefully transforming nature in accordance with ideas in their minds, so as to make it into goods that can satisfy their needs.  [Marx did not know about tool use in animals, but that really does not matter here.]   They too first form an idea in mind -- of a stone shaped to be a tool, of a field of grain, of a stick bent to form a bow -- and then externalize it, embodying the idea in an object that can serve our needs, helping us to gain food, clothing, shelter, and other humanly satisfying goods.  But unlike the act of artistic creation, the act of production is collective, social.  We struggle with nature together, not alone.  This act of collective self-externalization, of production, is labor."
            Marcuse embraces Marx's conception of natural, fulfilling, autonomous labor as a human good, not as a curse laid upon us for our disobedience, and adds to it the concept of surplus repression.  This gives him a very powerful analytical tool with which to criticize human existence in an advanced capitalist economy.  Capitalism as we experience it today is exploitative and it rests upon a degree of repression that is far greater than required simply for the satisfaction of human needs.  But what is, in Marcuse's view, even worse, modern capitalist society [and especially American society, I think Marcuse believed] has devised ways of depriving the exploited and repressed of the psychological means of resistance.

            The key to this critique is Marcuse's surprising and seemingly contradictory notion of repressive desublimation. 
            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.


David Auerbach said...

The Beatles' film *A Hard Day's Night* has a long and wonderful scene of cooptation at an ad agency.

Jerry Fresia said...

The "structure of artistic creation" that you have described puzzles me. I must be missing something.

Why is it that there is such utter obsession with "the idea." Doesn't that emphasis, if not obsession, turn on the mutilation of the human being? The world of "sensuous human activity" is nowhere to be found and certainly not to be found as the genesis of inspiration. I am able to speak more confidently about my own experience as a visual artist, but let us take the musician given that Beethoven was referenced. Is there such a thing as the idea of a sound, equivalent or superior to the sound? as the source of the sound, the music? It would seem to me that the inspirational genesis of music, and other art forms - even writing - is similar to the experience of the first glance that would-be sexual partners exchange. It is a rush, a twinge, a sudden skipping of the beat of one's heart - that serves as the inspiration. Dare I say a feeling?

Secondly, I like the notion of a "satisfying self-externalization" but it isn't quite right. If we were to use the concept of "self-realization" as opposed to "self-externalization" we wouldn't have to run through the litany of things that happen to the product (horrible term, I know) - especially given that the artist generally has moved on to the next piece as soon as the first one is let go (I won't use the term "finished"). So many artists don't want to even be in the same room (or possibly hear again or even hear the first time) a work from which one has moved on. Rather, the alienation, I would argue, is rooted in all the forces that compel one to put food on the table and which, at the same time, obstruct one's self-realization, or becoming.

Might it be possible to say that the sensation or sensory experience has truly been made flesh? I can't help but think, in this context, of Ken Robinson's quip that academics "look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads." Rather harsh, I know. And certainly not applicable to you, whose work rings with that wonderful wholeness. But I feel compelled to ask, what happened to the body in all of this?

Jerry Fresia said...

Let me quickly add (given my reference to Beethoven, whose deafness may encourage the belief that his example supports the "idea" theory of inspiration) that Beethoven, in his deafness, place a stick that led to the keyboard between his teeth. In other words, the vibrations of the piano itself, unless I am mistaken, was his sound.