Day 16: Herbie Full Throttle


First: yes, I think if one were to compare Herbert Marcuse to a car, it would surely be a Volkswagen, especially a Vokswagen Kaefer. Oh yes, I said it: Herbert Marcuse is one of the few Vokswagens of philosophy (just to remind people quickly: “Volkswagen” translates to “car of the people”–hard to make that association looking at the Phaeton, isn’t it?).

I have been threatening people with a Marcuse post for a while now, so here it’s first part. Several things are on my mind:

1. Marcuse’s conception of labor in relation to Marx in relation to the currently popular Autnonomia movement/Italian anarchism. I have to reduce the complexity of this argument, but it runs as follows: Marcuse, for whom the idea of a rational society is central, argues that within such as rational society labor can win back its “originally libidinous” character and can become a joyful experience again. Marx, however, suggests e.g. in the Grundrisse, that labor will not automatically become “free play” in a free society. He thus combines a critique of Fourier’s romanticized idea of free labor with a relativization of the role labor plays in the Hegelian dialectic–it cannot in an uncomplicated manner work within the lordship and bondage dialectic. Autnomonia suggests that a move toward true, less mediated forms of sovereignty must be built upon a total abolition of the concept of labor. Both Marx and Autonomia are thus, for example, directly opposed to the logic of, say, trade unions here as a means to think a free society (they would fall into the functional category of e.g. the welfare state). Marcuse’s assertion similarly erases the necessity for trade unions, as they are not a part of and not a way toward a rational society. How to resolve this dilemma? In other words, what is the precise relation between labor and Being in a Heideggerian sense, or subjectivity in a purely materialist sense? How do we formulate a theory of the relation of labor to consciousness, thus to subject position and processes of self-valorization in a situation where one of the most central desires of mentally disabled people is to be able to work in order to feel like a productive part of society? What is the link between the social bond, the ideology of productivity and capitalist definitions of productivity on the level of Being, or Dasein (both again in a Heideggerian sense–or, for that matter, in relation to Georg Lukacs)?

2. Jameson suggests: “always historicize!” Good idea. Now let’s figure out what history is. Jameson’s second suggestion: “history is what hurts.” Thanks. Now let’s try to work toward a somewhat more workable definition of history and compare Jameson to the famously most optimistic pessimist of philosophy Herbert Marcuse. What Jameson suggests is that history must be regarded as the history of repression, which makes sense in the Marxian tradition, as negativity, or more concretely, struggle, is the motor of the deialectical progress of history. So repression and its resolution, or the productive conflicts it produces move history forward. I can see that. See for example the Civil Rights movement as such as forward progress due to the engagement with repression. Now, within that same materialist dialectic, however, even within the classic Hegelian dialectic, we find one other possibility for a theory of history, namely the one suggested by Marcuse. For Marcuse history is the arena for the realization for human potentiality, i.e. it moves toward what Hegel would call Spirit by the gradual negation of all negativity on the basis of which, e.g., critical theory gains its transformative power. These are two very different formulations of history within the same logical system, which may not seem like a big deal, but they do result in the ultimate depiction of a very different force field and study quite opposed subjects–especially when one looks at cultural production, or aesthetic engagements with history in general. Anyone willing to finally put a lid on that discussion and provide us with a workable definition of history that makes historical materialism concreteand not relative again?

Just to restate the suggestion here: Jameson looks at history in a classically Marxian dialectical way: what are the forces of struggle, conflict and negation that resulted in a forward movement of history? Marcuse, on the other hand, presenting a different version of the materialist dialectic, suggests to me a VERY interesting alternative conception of history, namely “a theory which analyzes society in the light of its used and unused or abused capabilities for improving the human condition.” Doesn’t this have something critically quite rigorous and at the same time strikingly beautiful to it? History in part as the history of unused or abused potentiality for improving the human condition? Especially when one supplements it with Lukacs’ description of abstract and concrete potentiality. I think this is great–at least for rhetorical and demagogical purposes. If there is a movement that wants to write a new manifesto that attemtps to rally the masses to improve their condition, this logic should be its foundational element.

Ok, I will continue this tomorrow with special regards to Marcuse’s One Dimendional Man, which is a) an absolutely beautiful read and b) is becoming incredibly timely again.

I would like to close with a recommendation for further reading, as I still believe that there has not been a philosopher since Marcuse with such a passionate regard for the human condition and there has been no philosopher whose writings have been able to emotionally move me, make me hopeful and fill me with screaming anger at the “unfulfilled and abused potential” quite like Marcuse’s. As an illustration of this I urge you all to read the elegy/eulogy for Max Horkheimer given by Marcuse at Horkheimer’s funeral. Absolutely beautiful! It is re-printed in one of the volumes called The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse–I believe it is the one with the subtitle: Toward  a Critical Theory of Society. But I will try to find a link.



  1. I’d love to read the manifesto you mention. Maybe it could be written in parts? Blogged?

    I’m moved myself by your tribute to Marcuse. I’ve only started Reason and Revolution, but it is a truly readable and humane treatment of Hegel.

    Maybe my friday routine will include some guilt-free Marcuse reading? How does *potentiality* in Marcuse work?

  2. My favorites are definitely _One Dimensional Man_ and _An Essay on Liberation_. There is some interesting stuff in _Counterrevolution and Revolt_, but that is kinda muddled in all the SDS stuff etc. Politically at times rather messy. It’s great fun, though, to read through his collected papers (edited by Douglas Kellner). There is just something about reading a letter to Adorno that begins with “Dear Teddie…”

    And, yes, we should start the “Contemporary Manifesto Writing Collective” on one of these blogs! That might be good fun. =)

  3. I imagine calling him Teddie to his face probably found one immediately struck by a perfect lightning of reserve.

    I’ve put the feakishly expensive Routledge collections of Marcuse’s papers on ye olde wishlist. Perhaps a widow in her dotage will donate to my presidential library.

    On with the manifesto!

  4. I did my Masters thesis on Paul Baran, who died of a fatal heart attack soon after reading the proofs for One-Dimensional Man. A coincidence? I don’t know.

    I find Marcuse very frustrating. Marx is so concrete (wrong, of course, ultimately, but concrete and logical.) Marcuse seems to shift the dialectic to something that is completely unquantifiable. Unused potentiality? One might as well read Geertz–very interesting analysis, as long as one doesn’t actually want to understand how human beings control and exploit other human beings.

    Am I expecting too much?

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