Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional Man

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February 6, 2009 by Gsmith

onedimensionalmanThese characters have not disappeared from the literature of advanced industrial society. but they survive essentially transformed.

The vamp, the national hero, the beatnik. the neurotic housewife, the gangster, the star, the charismatic tycoon; perform a function very different from and even contrary to that of their cultural predecessors. They are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order.

One-Dimensional Man ranks as one of my very favorite books, at least in the non-fiction realm. I suppose that’s why I’ve never reviewed it before. It’s difficult to be objective. I first read it at age sixteen, having checked it out with Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare from the Dixie College Library. I hid both from my parents, between my matress and box-spring, the way a normal boy would hide an issue of Playboy.

I’ve been re-reading it with my fourteen-year old daughter, in little bits and pieces, over the course of the last several months. She seems to think it makes a lot of sense, despite the fact that it was written nearly fifty years ago.

The book is an exploration of the phenomenon Marcuse called repressive desublimation. At first, this seems like a contradiction in terms. Desublimation, in the Freudian constellation, is something that’s inherently good. The classical definition implies an authentic expression of libidinous sentiments, free of pretense or disguise. At first, it seems impossible to marry this term with one describing repression. That, I believe, is the point. It’s a reflection of the inherent paradox of an advanced industrial society like ours.

Repressive desublimation, as described by Marcuse, is the process of replacing the inherent drive for genuine personal and political autonomy with a desire to purchase and consume goods and services which our masters deem luxurious.

Everyone healthy human being has a libido, which is the Freudian way to describe the drive to express feelings of love and affection. The diabolical genius of modern society has channeled these healthy drives into a matter of merchandise.

If, instead of telling your children “I love you”, you take them to Hot Topic and let them spend two-hundred dollars on new skinny jeans (with holes pre-ripped in the ass) then you’re already buried in the concrete of this particular fallacy. Don’t feel badly if that’s the case. I am too. We all are, to a greater or lesser extent. We live our lives in and through this fallacy.

We are regularly presented with choices, but the choices are not authentic. We can “choose” Coke or Pepsi, Ford or Chevrolet, Democrat or Republican; but we can not choose to restructure the system in a more democratic fashion. Even traditional methods of protest, including violent and destructive riots, only serve to strengthen the status quo, by enforcing an illusion of choice where there is none in reality.

This, as Marcuse foresaw (and he wrote his book a full twenty years before repressive desublimation became a reality) is the end result of industrial capitalism. It is a world where human beings are systematically dehumanized by the people they love most. Indeed, it is a world in which authentic love ceases to exist, having been monetized and commodified. Is it possible to show love without buying something?

With the end of an authentic love comes the end of collective autonomy. Politics and public service become means for personal enrichment. Work becomes less a matter of pride than a matter of money. Public policy decisions are made not with a desire for any greater good, but with profit as the bottom line. We cease to become citizens, or comrades, and merely become a mangy lot of consumers, seeking whatever base aggressive or sexual thrill might titillate us for a moment, before moving on to the next meaningless transitory pleasure.

The world of THX-1138 has finally arrived. Welcome!

Marx originally theorized that the working class would rise up and overthrow this system. Marcuse put that idea to bed; yet he, like Adorno and Horkheimer before him, sees a way out. Despite the planned scarcities, endless phony wars and degenerate art which are all part and parcel of capitalism, the inherent contradictions of suffering in the midst of plenty will eventually become too obvious to deny. The last part of this work might be seen as an introduction to Marcuse’s final book The Aesthetic Dimension, which I’ll review later; but in brief, the author proposes that art (and particularly literary art – poetry and prose) offers us a glimpse of a more authentic world, which will guide the people of the future toward reclaiming the citizenship which my generation bartered away for cheap, desublimated erotica. Hence the line with which he ends his treatise, taken from the late Walter Benjamin…

But for the sake of the hopeless have we been given hope.

A slightly more complete review is here.
One-Dimensional Man can be sampled here.


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