Herbert Marcuse 1969
An Essay on Liberation
Transcribed: by Alejandro Thamm;
1 – A Biological Foundation for Socialism?
2 – The New Sensibility
3 – Subverting Forces – in Transition
4 – Solidarity
Thanks Again to my friends who read the manuscript and whose comments and criticism I heeded throughout: especially Leo Lowenthal (University of California at Berkeley), Arno J. Mayer (Princeton University). and Barrington Moore, Jr. (Harvard University). My wife discussed with me every part and problem of the manuscript. Without her cooperation, this essay would have appeared much sooner. I am grateful to her that it didn’t.
The growing opposition to the global dominion of corporate capitalism is confronted by the sustained power of this dominion: its economic and military hold in the four continents, its neocolonial empire, and, most important, its unshaken capacity to subject the majority of the underlying population to its overwhelming productivity and force. This global power keeps the socialist orbit on the defensive, all too costly not only in terms of military expenditures but also in the perpetuation of a repressive bureaucracy. The development of socialism thus continues to be deflected from its original goals, and the competitive coexistence with the West generates values and aspirations for which the American standard of living serves as a model.
Now, however, this threatening homogeneity has been loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into the repressive continuum. This alternative is not so much a different road to socialism as an emergence of different goals and values, different aspirations in the men and women who resist and deny the massive exploitative power of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and liberal realizations. The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms.
In Vietnam, in Cuba, in China, a revolution is being defended and driven forward which struggles to eschew the bureaucratic administration of socialism. The guerrilla forces in Latin America seem to be animated by that same subversive impulse: liberation. At the same time, the apparently impregnable economic fortress of corporate capitalism shows signs of mounting strain: it seems that even the United States cannot indefinitely deliver its goods – guns and butter, napalm and color TV, The ghetto populations may well become the first mass basis of revolt (though not of revolution). The student opposition is spreading in the old socialist as well as capitalist countries. In France, it has for the first time challenged the full force of the regime and recaptured, for a short moment, the libertarian power of the red and the black flags; moreover, it has demonstrated the prospects for an enlarged basis. The temporary suppression of the rebellion will not reverse the trend.
None of these forces is the alternative. However, they outline, in very different dimensions, the limits of the established societies, of their power of containment. When these limits are reached, the Establishment may initiate a new order of totalitarian suppression. But beyond these limits, there is also the space, both physical and mental, for building a realm of freedom which is not that of the present: liberation also from the liberties of exploitative order – a liberation which must precede the construction of a free society, one which necessitates an historical break with the past and the present.
It would be irresponsible to overrate the present chances of these forces (this essay will stress the obstacles and “delays”), but the facts are there, facts which are not only the symbols but also the embodiments of hope. They confront the critical theory of society with the task of reexamining the prospects for the emergence of a socialist society qualitatively different from existing societies, the task of redefining socialism and its preconditions.
In the following chapters, I attempt to develop some ideas first submitted in Eros and Civilization and in One-Dimensional Man, then further discussed in “Repressive Tolerance” and in lectures delivered in recent years, mostly to student audiences in the United States and in Europe. This essay was written before the events of May and June 1968 in France. I have merely added some footnotes in the way of documentation. The coincidence between some of the ideas suggested in my essay, and those formulated by the young militants was to me striking. The radical utopian character of their demands far surpasses the hypotheses of my essay; and yet, these demands were developed and formulated in the course of action itself; they are expressions of concrete political practice. The militants have invalidated the concept of “utopia” – they have denounced a vicious ideology. No matter whether their action was a revolt or an abortive revolution, it is a turning point. In proclaiming the “permanent challenge” (la contestation permanente), the “permanent education,” the Great Refusal, they recognize the mark of social repression, even in the most sublime manifestations of traditional culture, even in the most spectacular manifestations of technical progress. They have again raised a specter (and this time a specter which haunts not only the bourgeoisie but all exploitative bureaucracies) : the specter of a revolution which subordinates the development of productive forces and higher standards of living to the requirements of creating solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, for the attainment of peace. In one word: they have taken the idea of revolution out of the continuum of repression and placed it into its authentic dimension: that of liberation.
The young militants know or sense that what is at stake is simply their life, the life of human beings which has become a plaything in the hands of politicians and managers and generals. The rebels want to take it out of these hands and make it worth living; they realize that this is still possible today, and that the attainment of this goal necessitates a struggle which can no longer be contained by the rules and regulations of a pseudo-democracy in a Free Orwellian World. To them I dedicate this essay.
Up to now, it has been one of the principal tenets of the critical theory of society (and particularly Marxian theory) to refrain from what might be reasonably called utopian speculation. Social theory is supposed to analyze existing societies in the light of their own functions and capabilities and to identify demonstrable tendencies (if any) which might lead beyond the existing state of affairs. By logical inference from the prevailing conditions and institutions, critical theory may also be able to determine the basic institutional changes which are the prerequisites for the transition to a higher stage of development: “higher” in the sense of a more rational and equitable use of resources, minimization of destructive conflicts, and enlargement of the realm of freedom. But beyond these limits, critical theory did not venture for fear of losing its scientific character.
I believe that this restrictive conception must be revised, and that the revision is suggested, and even necessitated, by the actual evolution of contemporary societies. The dynamic of their productivity deprives “utopia” of its traditional unreal content: what is denounced as “utopian” is no longer that which has “no place” and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of the established societies.
Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future. But we know now that neither their rational use nor – and this is decisive – their collective control by the “immediate producers” (the workers) would by itself eliminate domination and exploitation: a bureaucratic welfare state would still be a state of repression which would continue even into the “second phase of socialism,” when each is to receive “according to his needs.”
What is now at stake are the needs themselves. At this stage, the question is no longer: how can the individual satisfy his own needs without hurting others, but rather: how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude? The advent of a free society would be characterized by the fact that the growth of well-being turns into an essentially new quality of life. This qualitative change must occur in the needs, in the infrastructure of man (itself a dimension of the infrastructure of society): the new direction, the new institutions and relationships of production, must express the ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitative societies. Such a change would constitute the instinctual basis for freedom which the long history of class society has blocked. Freedom would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performances required for well-being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life. The rebellion would then have taken root in the very nature, the “biology” of the individual; and on these new grounds, the rebels would redefine the objectives and the strategy of the political struggle, in which alone the concrete goals of liberation can be determined.
Is such a change in the “nature” of man conceivable? I believe so, because technical progress has reached a stage in which reality no longer need be defined by the debilitating competition for social survival and advancement. The more these technical capacities outgrow the framework of exploitation within which they continue to be confined and abused, the more they propel the drives and aspirations of men to a point at which the necessities of life cease to demand the aggressive performances of “earning a living,” and the “non-necessary” becomes a vital need. This proposition, which is central in Marxian theory, is familiar enough, and the managers and publicists of corporate capitalism are well aware of its meaning; they are prepared to “contain” its dangerous consequences. The radical opposition also is aware of these prospects, but the critical theory which is to guide political practice still lags behind. Marx and Engels refrained from developing concrete concepts of the possible forms of freedom in a socialist society; today, such restraint no longer seems justified. The growth of the productive forces suggests possibilities of human liberty very different from, and beyond those envisaged at the earlier stage. Moreover, these real possibilities suggest that the gap which separates a free society from the existing societies would be wider and deeper precisely to the degree to which the repressive power and productivity of the latter shape man and his environment in their image and interest.
For the world of human freedom cannot be built by the established societies, no matter how much they may streamline and rationalize their dominion. Their class structure, and the perfected controls required to sustain it, generate needs, satisfactions, and values which reproduce the servitude of the human existence. This “voluntary” servitude (voluntary inasmuch as it is introjected into the individuals) , which justifies the benevolent masters, can be broken only through a political practice which reaches the roots of containment and contentment in the infrastructure of man, a political practice of methodical disengagement from and refusal of the Establishment, aiming at a radical transvaluation of values. Such a practice involves a break with the familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding things so that the organism may become receptive to the potential forms of a non-aggressive, non-exploitative world.
No matter how remote from these notions the rebellion may be, no matter how destructive and self-destructive it may appear, no matter how great the distance between the middle-class revolt in the metropoles and the life-and-death struggle of the wretched of the earth – common to them is the depth of the Refusal. It makes them reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient strategy of patience and persuasion, the reliance on the Good Will in the Establishment, its false and immoral comforts, its cruel affluence.
1 – A Biological Foundation for Socialism?
In the affluent society, capitalism comes into its Own. The two mainsprings of its dynamic – the escalation of commodity production and productive exploitation – join and permeate all dimensions of private and public existence. The available material and intellectual resources (the potential of liberation) have so much outgrown the established institutions that only the systematic increase in waste, destruction, and management keeps the system going. The opposition which escapes suppression by the police, the courts, the representatives of the people, and the people themselves, finds expression in the diffused rebellion among the youth and the intelligentsia, and in the daily struggle of the persecuted minorities. The armed class struggle is waged outside: by the wretched of the earth who fight the affluent monster.
The critical analysis of this society calls for new categories: moral, political, aesthetic. I shall try to develop them in the course of the discussion. The category of obscenity will serve as an introduction.
This society is obscene in producing and indecently exposing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its victims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; in its prayers, in its ignorance, and in the wisdom of its kept intellectuals.
Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another. Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace. Linguistic therapy – that is, the effort to free words (and thereby concepts) from the all but total distortion of their meanings by the Establishment – demands the transfer of moral standards (and of their validation) from the Establishment to the revolt against it. Similarly, the sociological and political vocabulary must be radically reshaped: it must be stripped of its false neutrality; it must be methodically and provocatively “moralized” in terms of the Refusal. Morality is not necessarily and not primarily ideological. In the face of an amoral society, it becomes a political weapon, an effective force which drives people to burn their draft cards, to ridicule national leaders, to demonstrate in the streets, and to unfold signs saying, “Thou shalt not kill,” in the nation’s churches.
The reaction to obscenity is shame, usually interpreted as the physiological manifestation of the sense of guilt accompanying the transgression of a taboo. The obscene exposures of the affluent society normally provoke neither shame nor a sense of guilt, although this society violates some of the most fundamental moral taboos of civilization. The term obscenity belongs to the sexual sphere; shame and the sense of guilt arise in the Oedipal situation. If in this respect social morality is rooted in sexual morality, then the shamelessness of the affluent society and its effective repression of the sense of guilt would indicate a decline of shame and guilt feeling in the sexual sphere. And indeed, the exposure of the (for all practical purposes) naked body is permitted and even encouraged, and the taboos on pre- and extramarital, intercourse are considerably relaxed. Thus we are faced with the contradiction that the liberalization of sexuality provides an instinctual basis for the repressive and aggressive power of the affluent society.
This contradiction can be resolved if we understand that the liberalization of the Establishment’s own morality takes place within the framework of effective controls; kept within this framework, the liberalization strengthens the cohesion of the whole. The relaxation of taboos alleviates the sense of guilt and binds (though with considerable ambivalence) the “free” individuals libidinally to the institutionalized fathers. They are powerful but also tolerant fathers, whose management of the nation and its economy delivers and protects the liberties of the citizens. On the other hand, if the violation of taboos transcends the sexual sphere and leads to refusal and rebellion, the sense of guilt is not alleviated and repressed but rather transferred: not we, but the fathers, are guilty; they are not tolerant but false; they want to redeem their own guilt by making us, the sons, guilty; they have created a world of hypocrisy and violence in which we do not wish to live. Instinctual revolt turns into political rebellion, and against this union, the Establishment mobilizes its full force.
This union provokes such a response because it reveals the prospective scope of social change at this stage of development, the extent to which the radical political practice involves a cultural subversion. The refusal with which the opposition confronts the existing society is affirmative in that it envisages a new culture which fulfills the humanistic promises betrayed by the old culture. Political radicalism thus implies moral radicalism: the emergence of a morality which might precondition man for freedom. This radicalism activates the elementary, organic foundation of morality in the human being. Prior to all ethical behavior in accordance with specific social standards, prior to all ideological expression, morality is a “disposition” of the organism, perhaps rooted in the erotic drive to counter aggressiveness, to create and preserve “ever greater unities” of life. We would then have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings – a solidarity which has been effectively repressed in line with the requirements of class society but which now appears as a precondition for liberation.
To the degree to which this foundation is itself historical and the malleability of “human nature” reaches into the depth of man’s instinctual structure, changes in morality may “sink down” into the “biological" dimension and modify organic behavior. Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected – it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behavior and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.
The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined. The second nature of man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this dependence of man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise – abolish his existence as a consumer consuming himself in buying and selling. The needs generated by this system are thus eminently stabilizing, conservative needs: the counterrevolution anchored in the instinctual structure.
The market has always been one of exploitation and thereby of domination, insuring the class structure of society. However, the productive process of advanced capitalism has altered the form of domination: the technological veil covers the brute presence and the operation of the class interest in the merchandise. Is it still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engines of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?
Not the automobile is repressive, not the television set is repressive, not the household gadgets are repressive, but the automobile, the television, the gadgets which, produced in accordance with the requirements of profitable exchange, have become part and parcel of the people’s own existence, own “actualization.” Thus they have to buy part and parcel of their own existence on the market; this existence is the realization of capital. The naked class interest builds the unsafe and obsolescent automobiles, and through them promotes destructive energy; the class interest employs the mass media for the advertising of violence and stupidity, for the creation of captive audiences. In doing so, the masters only obey the demand of the public, of the masses; the famous law of supply and demand establishes the harmony between the rulers and the ruled. This harmony is indeed pre-established to the degree to which the masters have created the public which asks for their wares, and asks for them more insistently if it can release, in and through the wares, its frustration and the aggressiveness resulting from this frustration. Self-determination, the autonomy of the individual, asserts itself in the right to race his automobile, to handle his power tools, to buy a gun, to communicate to mass audiences his opinion, no matter how ignorant, how aggressive, it may be. Organized capitalism has sublimated and turned to socially productive use frustration and primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented scale – unprecedented not in terms of the quantity of violence but rather in terms of its capacity to produce long-range contentment and satisfaction, to reproduce the “voluntary servitude.” To be sure, frustration, unhappiness, and sickness remain the basis of this sublimation, but the productivity and the brute power of the system still keep the basis well under control. The achievements justify the system of domination. The established values become the people’s own values: adaptation turns into spontaneity, autonomy; and the choice between social necessities appears as freedom. In this sense, the continuing exploitation is not only hidden behind the technological veil, but actually “transfigured.” The capitalist production relations are responsible not only for the servitude and toil but also for the greater happiness and fun available to the majority of the population – and they deliver more goods than before.
Neither its vastly increased capacity to produce the commodities of satisfaction nor the peaceful management of class conflicts rendered possible by this capacity cancels the essential features of capitalism, namely, the private appropriation of surplus value (steered but not abolished by government intervention) and its realization in the corporate interest. Capitalism reproduces itself by transforming itself, and this transformation is mainly in the improvement of exploitation. Do exploitation and domination cease to be what they are and what they do to man if they are no longer suffered, if they are “compensated” by previously unknown comforts? Does labor cease to be debilitating if mental energy increasingly replaces physical energy in producing the goods and services which sustain a system that makes hell of large areas of the globe? An affirmative answer would justify any form of oppression which keeps the populace calm and content; while a negative answer would deprive the individual of being the judge of his own happiness.
The notion that happiness is an objective condition which demands more than subjective feelings has been effectively obscured; its validity depends on the real solidarity of the species “man,” which a society divided into antagonistic classes and nations cannot achieve. As long as this is the history of mankind, the “state of nature,” no matter how refined, prevails: a civilized helium omnium contra omnes, in which the happiness of the ones must coexist with the suffering of the others. The First International was the last attempt to realize the solidarity of the species by grounding it in that social class in which the subjective and objective interest, the particular and the universal, coincided (the International is the late concretization of the abstract philosophical concept of “man as man,” human being, “Gattungswesen,” which plays such a decisive role in Marx’ and Engels’ early writings). Then, the Spanish civil war aroused this solidarity, which is the driving power of liberation, in the unforgettable, hopeless fight of a tiny minority against the combined forces of fascist and liberal capitalism. Here, in the international brigades which, with their poor weapons, withstood overwhelming technical superiority, was the union of young intellectuals and workers – the union which has become the desperate goal of today’s radical opposition.
Attainment of this goal is thwarted by the integration of the organized (and not only the organized) laboring class into the system of advanced capitalism. Under its impact, the distinction between the real and the immediate interest of the exploited has collapsed. This distinction, far from being an abstract idea, was guiding the strategy of the Marxist movements; it expressed the necessity transcending the economic struggle of the laboring classes, to extend wage demands and demands for the improvement of working conditions to the political arena, to drive the class struggle to the point at which the system itself would be at stake, to make foreign as well as domestic policy, the national as well as the class interest, the target of this struggle. The real interest, the attainment of conditions in which man could shape his own life, was that of no longer subordinating his life to the requirements of profitable production, to an apparatus controlled by forces beyond his control. And the attainment of such conditions meant the abolition of capitalism.
It is not simply the higher standard of living, the illusory bridging of the consumer gap between the rulers and the ruled, which has obscured the distinction between the real and the immediate interest of the ruled. Marxian theory soon recognized that impoverishment does not necessarily provide the soil for revolution, that a highly developed consciousness and imagination may generate a vital need for radical change in advanced material conditions. The power of corporate capitalism has stifled the emergence of such a consciousness and imagination; its mass media have adjusted the rational and emotional faculties to its market and its policies and steered them to defense of its dominion. The narrowing of the consumption gap has rendered possible the mental and instinctual coordination of the laboring classes: the majority of organized labor shares the stabilizing, counterrevolutionary needs of the middle classes, as evidenced by their behavior as consumers of the material and cultural merchandise, by their emotional revulsion against the nonconformist intelligentsia. Conversely, where the consumer gap is still wide, where the capitalist culture has not yet reached into every house or hut, the system of stabilizing needs has its limits; the glaring contrast between the privileged class and the exploited leads to a radicalization of the underprivileged. This is the case of the ghetto population and the unemployed in the United States; this is also the case of the laboring classes in the more backward capitalist countries.
By virtue of its basic position in the production process, by virtue of its numerical weight and the weight of exploitation, the working class is still the historical agent of revolution; by virtue of its sharing the stabilizing needs of the system, it has become a conservative, even counterrevolutionary force. Objectively, “in-itself,” labor still is the potentially revolutionary class; subjectively, “for-itself,” it is not. This theoretical conception has concrete significance in the prevailing situation, in which the working class may help to circumscribe the scope and the targets of political practice.
In the advanced capitalist countries, the radicalization of the working classes is counteracted by a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and by the development and satisfaction of needs which perpetuate the servitude of the exploited. A vested interest in the existing system is thus fostered in the instinctual structure of the exploited, and the rupture with the continuum of repression a necessary precondition of liberation – does not occur. It follows that the radical change which is to transform the existing society into a free society must reach into a dimension of the human existence hardly considered in Marxian theory – the -biological- dimension in which the vital, imperative needs and satisfactions of man assert themselves. Inasmuch as these needs and satisfactions reproduce a life in servitude, liberation presupposes changes in this biological dimension, that is to say, different instinctual needs, different reactions of the body as well as the mind.
The qualitative difference between the existing societies and a free society affects all needs and satisfactions beyond the animal level, that is to say, all those which are essential to the human species, man as rational animal. All these needs and satisfactions are permeated with the exigencies of profit and exploitation. The entire realm of competitive performances and standardized fun, all the symbols of status, prestige, power, of advertised virility and charm, of commercialized beauty – this entire realm kills in its citizens the very disposition, the organs, for the alternative: freedom without exploitation.
Triumph and end of introjection: the stage where the people cannot reject the system of domination without rejecting themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs and values. We would have to conclude that liberation would mean subversion against the will and against the prevailing interests of the great majority of the people. In this false identification of social and individual needs, in this deep-rooted, “organic” adaptation of the people to a terrible but profitably functioning society, lie the limits of democratic persuasion and evolution. On the overcoming of these limits depends the establishment of democracy.
It is precisely this excessive adaptability of the human organism which propels the perpetuation and extension of the commodity form and, with it, the perpetuation and extension of the social controls over behavior and satisfaction.
The ever-increasing complexity of the social structure will make some form of regimentation unavoidable, freedom and privacy may come to constitute antisocial luxuries and their attainment to involve real hardships. In consequence, there may emerge by selection a stock of human beings suited genetically to accept as a matter of course a regimented and sheltered way of life in a teeming and polluted world, from which all wilderness and fantasy of nature will have disappeared. The domesticated farm animal and the laboratory rodent on a controlled regimen in a controlled environment will then become true models for the study of man.
Thus, it is apparent that food, natural resources, supplies of power, and other elements involved in the operation of the body machine and of the individual establishment are not the only factors to be considered in determining the optimum number of people that can live on earth. Just as important for maintaining the human qualities of life is an environment in which it is possible to satisfy the longing for quiet, privacy, independence, initiative, and some open space...
Capitalist progress thus not only reduces the environment of freedom, the “open space” of the human existence, but also the ‘longing,” the need for such an environment. And in doing so, quantitative progress militates against qualitative change even if the institutional barriers against radical education and action are surmounted. This is the vicious circle: the rupture with the self-propelling conservative continuum of needs must precede the revolution which is to usher in a free society, but such rupture itself can be envisaged only in a revolution – a revolution which would be driven by the vital need to be freed from the administered comforts and the destructive productivity of the exploitative society, freed from smooth heteronomy, a revolution which, by virtue of this “biological” foundation, would have the chance of turning quantitative technical progress into qualitatively different ways of life – precisely because it would be a revolution occurring at a high level of material and intellectual development, one which would enable man to conquer scarcity and poverty. If this idea of a radical transformation is to be more than idle speculation, it must have an objective foundation in the production process of advanced industrial society, in its technical capabilities and their use.
For freedom indeed depends largely on technical progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition: in order to become vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility – the demands of the life instincts. Then one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil. But this gaya scienza is conceivable only after the historical break in the continuum of domination as expressive of the needs of a new type of man.
The idea of a new type of man as the member (though not as the builder) of a socialist society appears in Marx and Engels in the concept of the “all-round individual,” free to engage in the most varying activities. In the socialist society corresponding to this idea, the free development of individual faculties would replace the subjection of the individual to the division of labor. But no matter what activities the all-round individual would choose, they would be activities which are bound to lose the quality of freedom if exercised “en masse” – and they would be “en masse,” for even the most authentic socialist society would inherit the population growth and the mass basis of advanced capitalism. The early Marxian example of the free individuals alternating between hunting, fishing, criticizing, and so on, had a joking-ironical sound from the beginning, indicative of the impossibility anticipating the ways in which liberated human beings would use their freedom. However, the embarrassingly ridiculous sound may also indicate the degree to which this vision has become obsolete and pertains to a stage of the development of the productive forces which has been surpassed. The later Marxian concept implies the continued separation between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, between labor and leisure – not only in time, but also in such a manner that the same subject lives a different life in the two realms. According to this Marxian conception, the realm of necessity would continue under socialism to such an extent that real human freedom would prevail only outside the entire sphere of socially necessary labor. Marx rejects the idea that work can ever become play. Alienation would be reduced with the progressive reduction of the working day, but the latter would remain a day of unfreedom, rational but not free. However, the development of the productive forces beyond their capitalist organization suggests the possibility of freedom within the realm of necessity. The quantitative reduction of necessary labor could turn into quality (freedom), not in proportion to the reduction but rather to the transformation of the working day, a transformation in which the stupefying, enervating, pseudo-automatic jobs of capitalist progress would be abolished. But the construction of such a society presupposes a type of man with a different sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses; men who have developed an instinctual barrier against cruelty, brutality, ugliness. Such an instinctual transformation is conceivable as a factor of social change only if it enters the social division of labor, the production relations themselves. They would be shaped by men and women who have the good conscience of being human, tender, sensuous, who are no longer ashamed of themselves – for -the token of freedom attained, that is, no longer being ashamed of ourselves” (Nietzsche, Die Frohliche Wissenschaft, Book III, 275). The imagination of such men and women would fashion their reason and tend to make the process of production a process of creation. This is the utopian concept of socialism which envisages the ingression of freedom into the realm of necessity, and the union between causality by necessity and causality by freedom. The first would mean passing from Marx to Fourier; the second from realism to surrealism.
A utopian conception? It has been the great, real, transcending force, the “idée neuve,” in the first powerful rebellion against the whole of the existing society, the rebellion for the total transvaluation of values, for qualitatively different ways of life: the May rebellion in France. The graffiti of the “jeunesse en colère” joined Karl Marx and Andre Breton; the slogan “l'imagination au pouvoir” went well with “les comités (soviets) partout”; the piano with the jazz player stood well between the barricades; the red flag well fitted the statue of the author of Les Miserables; and striking students in Toulouse demanded the revival of the language of the Troubadours, the Albigensians. The new sensibility has become a political force. It crosses the frontier between the capitalist and the communist orbit ; it is contagious because the atmosphere, the climate of the established societies, carries the virus.
2 – The New Sensibility
The new Sensibility has become a political factor. This event, which may well indicate a turning point in the evolution of contemporary societies, demands that critical theory incorporate the new dimension into its concepts, project its implications for the possible construction of a free society. Such a society presupposes throughout the achievements of the existing societies, especially their scientific and technical achievements. Released from their service in the cause of exploitation, they could be mobilized for the global elimination of poverty and toil. True, this redirection of the intellectual and material production already presupposes the revolution in the capitalist world; the theoretical projection seems to be fatally premature – were it not for the fact that the awareness of the transcendent possibilities of freedom must become a driving power in the consciousness and the imagination which prepare the soil for this revolution. The latter will be essentially different, and effective, precisely to the degree to which it is carried forward by this power.
The new sensibility, which expresses the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt, would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery and would shape the further evolution of the “standard of living.” The life instincts would find rational expression (sublimation) in planning the distribution of the socially necessary labor time within and among the various branches of production, thus setting priorities of goals and choices: not only what to produce but also the “form” of the product. The liberated consciousness would promote the development of a science and technology free to discover and realize the possibilities of things and men in the protection and gratification of life, playing with the potentialities of form and matter for the attainment of this goal. Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated. Emergence of a new Reality Principle: under which a new sensibility and a desublimated scientific intelligence would combine in the creation of an aesthetic ethos.
The term “aesthetic,” in its dual connotation of “pertaining to the senses” and “pertaining to art,” may serve to designate the quality of the productive-creative process in an environment of freedom. Technique, assuming the features of art, would translate subjective sensibility into objective form, into reality. This would be the sensibility of men and women who do not have to be ashamed of themselves anymore because they have overcome their sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify themselves with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and forgotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental temples of the corporations, and who have worshiped the higher culture of this reality. If and when men and women act and think free from this identification, they will have broken the chain which linked the fathers and the sons from generation to generation. They will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have become free to stop them and to prevent their recommencement. Chance of reaching the point of no return to the past: if and when the causes are eliminated which have made the history of mankind the history of domination and servitude. These causes are economic-political, but since they have shaped the very instincts and needs of men, no economic and political changes will bring this historical continuum to a stop unless they are carried through by men who are physiologically and psychologically able to experience things, and each other, outside the context of violence and exploitation.
The new sensibility has become, by this very token, praxis: it emerges in the struggle against violence and exploitation where this struggle is waged for essentially new ways and forms of life: negation of the entire Establishment, its morality, culture; affirmation of the right to build a society in which the abolition of poverty and toil terminates in a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence and thereby the Form of the society itself.
The aesthetic as the possible Form of a free society appears at that stage of development where the intellectual and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are available, where previously progressive repression turns into regressive suppression, where the higher culture in which the aesthetic values (and the aesthetic truth) had been monopolized and segregated from the reality collapses and dissolves in desublimated, “lower,” and destructive forms, where the hatred of the young bursts into laughter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor, love play and heroism. And the young also attack the esprit de serieux in the socialist camp: miniskirts against the apparatchiks, rock ‘n’ roll against Soviet Realism. The insistence that a socialist society can and ought to be light, pretty, playful, that these qualities are essential elements of freedom, the faith in the rationality of the imagination, the demand for a new morality and culture – does this great anti-authoritarian rebellion indicate a new dimension and direction of radical change, the appearance of new agents of radical change, and a new vision of socialism in its qualitative difference from the established societies? Is there anything in the aesthetic dimension which has an essential affinity with freedom not only in its sublimated cultural (artistic) but also in its desublimated political, existential form, so that the aesthetic can become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft: factor in the technique of production, horizon under which the material and intellectual needs develop?
Throughout the centuries, the analysis of the aesthetic dimension focused on the idea of the beautiful. Does this idea express the aesthetic ethos which provides the common denominator of the aesthetic and the political?
As desired object, the beautiful pertains to the domain of the primary instincts, Eros and Thanatos. The mythos links the adversaries: pleasure and terror. Beauty has the power to check aggression: it forbids and immobilizes the aggressor. The beautiful Medusa petrifies him who confronts her. “Poseidon, the god with azure locks, slept with her in a soft meadow on a bed with springtime flowers." She is slain by Perseus, and from her truncated body springs the winged horse Pegasus, symbol of poetic imagination. Kinship of the beautiful, the divine, the poetic, but also kinship of the beautiful and unsublimated joy. Subsequently, the classical aesthetic, while insisting on the harmonious union of sensuousness, imagination, and reason in the beautiful, equally insisted on the objective (ontological) character of the beautiful, as the Form in which man and nature come into their own: fulfillment. Kant asks whether there is not a hidden connection between Beauty and Perfection (Vollkommenheit), and Nietzsche notes: “the Beautiful as the mirror (Spiegelung) of the Logical, i.e., the laws of logic are the object of the laws of the Beautiful." For the artist, the beautiful is mastery of the opposites “without tension, so that violence is no longer needed....” The beautiful has the “biological value” of that which is “useful, beneficial, enhancing life” (Lebensteigernd)."
By virtue of these qualities, the aesthetic dimension can serve as a sort of gauge for a free society. A universe of human relationships no longer mediated by the market, no longer based on competitive exploitation or terror, demands a sensitivity freed from the repressive satisfactions of the unfree societies; a sensitivity receptive to forms and modes of reality which thus far have been projected only by the aesthetic imagination. For the aesthetic needs have their own social content: they are the claims of the human organism, mind and body, for a dimension of fulfillment which can be created only in the struggle against the institutions which, by their very functioning, deny and violate these claims. The radical social content of the aesthetic needs becomes evident as the demand for their most elementary satisfaction is translated into group action on an enlarged scale. From the harmless drive for better zoning regulations and a modicum of protection from noise and dirt to the pressure for closing of whole city areas to automobiles, prohibition of transistor radios in all public places, decommercialization of nature, total urban reconstruction, control of the birth rate – such action would become increasingly subversive of the institutions of capitalism and of their morality. The quantity of such reforms would turn into the quality of radical change to the degree to which they would critically weaken the economic, political, and cultural pressure and power groups which have a vested interest in preserving the environment and ecology of profitable merchandising.
The aesthetic morality is the opposite of puritanism. It does not insist on a daily bath or shower for people whose cleaning practices involve systematic torture, slaughtering, poisoning; nor does it insist on clean clothes for men who are professionally engaged in dirty deals. But it does insist on cleaning the earth from the very material garbage produced by the spirit of capitalism, and from this spirit itself. And it insists on freedom as a biological necessity: being physically incapable of tolerating any repression other than that required for the protection and amelioration of life.
When Kant, in his third Critique, all but obliterated the frontiers between sensibility and imagination, he recognized the extent to which the senses are “productive,” creative – the extent to which they have a share in producing the images of freedom. For its part, the imagination depends on the senses which provide the experiential material out of which the imagination creates its realm of freedom, by transforming the objects and relationships which have been the data of the senses and which have been formed by the senses. The freedom of the imagination is thus restrained by the order of the sensibility, not only by its pure forms (space and time), but also by its empirical content which, as the object-world to be transcended, remains a determining factor in the transcendence. Whatever beautiful or sublime, pleasurable or terrifying forms of reality the imagination may project, they are “derived” from sensuous experience. However, the freedom of the imagination is restrained not only by the sensibility, but also, at the other pole of the organic structure, by the rational faculty of man, his reason. The most daring images of a new world, of new ways of life, are still guided by concepts, and by a logic elaborated in the development of thought, transmitted from generation to generation. On both sides, that of the sensibility and that of reason, history enters into the projects of the imagination, for the world of the senses is a historical world, and reason is the conceptual mastery and interpretation of the historical world.
The order and organization of class society, which have shaped the sensibility and the reason of man, have also shaped the freedom of the imagination. It had its controlled play in the sciences, pure and applied, and its autonomous play in poetry, fiction, the arts. Between the dictates of instrumentalist reason on the one hand and a sense experience mutilated by the realizations of this reason on the other, the power of the imagination was repressed ; it was free to become practical, i.e., to transform reality only within the general framework of repression; beyond these limits, the practice of the imagination was violation of taboos of social morality, was perversion and subversion. In the great historical revolutions, the imagination was, for a short period, released and free to enter into the projects of a new social morality and of new institutions of freedom; then it was sacrificed to the requirements of effective reason.
If now, in the rebellion of the young intelligentsia, the right and the truth of the imagination become the demands of political action, if surrealistic forms of protest and refusal spread throughout the movement, this apparently insignificant development may indicate a fundamental change in the situation. The political protest, assuming a total character, reaches into a dimension which, as aesthetic dimension, has been essentially apolitical. And the political protest activates in this dimension precisely the foundational, organic elements: the human sensibility which rebels against the dictates of repressive reason, and, in doing so, invokes the sensuous power of the imagination. The political action which insists on a new morality and a new sensibility as preconditions and results of social change occurs at a point at which the repressive rationality that has brought about the achievements of industrial society becomes utterly regressive – rational only in its efficiency to “contain” liberation. Beyond the limits (and beyond the power) of repressive reason now appears the prospect for a new relationship between sensibility and reason, namely, the harmony between sensibility and a radical consciousness: rational faculties capable of projecting and defining the objective (material) conditions of freedom, its real limits and chances. But instead of being shaped and permeated by the rationality of domination, the sensibility would be guided by the imagination, mediating between the rational faculties and the sensuous needs. The great conception which animates Kant’s critical philosophy shatters the philosophical framework in which he kept it. The imagination, unifying sensibility and reason, becomes “productive” as it becomes practical: a guiding force in the reconstruction of reality – reconstruction with the help of a gaya scienza, a science and technology released from their service to destruction and exploitation, and thus free for the liberating exigencies of the imagination. The rational transformation of the world could then lead to a reality formed by the aesthetic sensibility of man. Such a world could (in a literal sense!) embody, incorporate, the human faculties and desires to such an extent that they appear as part of the objective determinism of nature – coincidence of causality through nature and causality through freedom. Andre Breton has made this idea the center of surrealist thought: his concept of the hasard objectif designates the nodal point at which the two chains of causation meet and bring about the event.
The aesthetic universe is the Lebenswelt on which the needs and faculties of freedom depend for their liberation. They cannot develop in an environment shaped by and for aggressive impulses, nor can they be envisaged as the mere effect of a new set of social institutions. They can emerge only in the collective practice of creating an environment: level by level, step by step – in the material and intellectual production, an environment in which the non-aggressive, erotic, receptive faculties of man, in harmony with the consciousness of freedom, strive for the pacification of man and nature. In the reconstruction of society for the attainment of this goal, reality altogether would assume a Form expressive of the new goal. The essentially aesthetic quality of this Form would make it a work of art, but inasmuch as the Form is to emerge in the social process of production, art would have changed its traditional locus and function in society: it would have become a productive force in the material as well as cultural transformation. And as such force, art would be an integral factor in shaping the quality and the “appearance” of things, in shaping the reality, the way of life. This would mean the Aufhebung of art: end of the segregation of the aesthetic from the real, but also end of the commercial unification of business and beauty, exploitation and pleasure. Art would recapture some of its more primitive “technical” connotations: as the art of preparing (cooking!), cultivating, growing things, giving them a form which neither violates their matter nor the sensitivity – ascent of Form as one of the necessities of being, universal beyond all subjective varieties of taste, affinity, etc. According to Kant, there are pure forms of sensibility a priori, common to all human beings. Only space and time? Or is there perhaps also a more material constitutive form, such as the primary distinction between beautiful and ugly, good and bad – prior to all rationalization and ideology,. a distinction made by the senses (productive in their receptivity), distinguishing that which violates sensibility from that which gratifies it? In which case the vast varieties of taste, affinity, predilection would be the differentiation of an “original” basic form of sensibility, sense experience, on which modeling, restraining, and repressing forces would operate in accord with the respective individual and social situation.
The new sensibility and the new consciousness which are to project and guide such reconstruction demand a new language to define and communicate the new “values” (language in the wider sense which includes words, images, gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which a revolution is developing qualitatively different social conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by the development of a different language: the rupture with the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with the vocabulary of domination. The surrealist thesis, according to which the poet is the total nonconformist, finds in the poetic language the semantic elements of the revolution.
Car le poète... ne peut plus être reconnu comme tel s'il ne s'oppose par un non-conformisme total au monde où il vit. Il se dresse contre tous, y compris les révolutionnaires qui, se plaçant sur le terrain de la seule politique, arbitrairement isolée par-là de Ensemble du mouvement culturel – préconisent la soumission de la culture a l'accomplissement de la révolution sociale.
The surrealist thesis does not abandon the materialistic premises but it protests against the isolation of the material from the cultural development, which leads to a submission of the latter to the former and thus to a reduction (if not denial) of the libertarian possibilities of the revolution. Prior to their incorporation into the material development, these possibilities are “sur-realistic”: they belong to the poetic imagination, formed and expressed in the poetic language. It is not, it cannot be, an instrumentalist language, not an instrument of revolution.
It seems that the poems and the songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream.
Their time is not the present; they preserve their truth in their hope, in their refusal of the actual. The distance between the universe of poetry and that of politics is so great, the mediations which validate the poetic truth and the rationality of imagination are so complex, that any shortcut between the two realities seems fatal to poetry. There is no way in which we can envisage a historical change in the relation between the cultural and the revolutionary movement which could bridge the gap between the everyday and the poetic language and abrogate the dominance of the former. The latter seems to draw all its power and all its truth from its otherness, its transcendence.
And yet, the radical denial of the Establishment and the communication of the new consciousness depend more and more fatefully on a language of their own as all communication is monopolized and validated by the one-dimensional society. To be sure, the language of denial has, in its “material,” always been the same as the language of affirmation; the linguistic continuity reasserted itself after every revolution. Perhaps necessarily so, because through all revolutions, the continuity of domination has been sustained. But in the past, the language of indictment and liberation, though it shared its vocabulary with the masters and their retainers, had found its own meaning and validation in actual revolutionary struggles which eventually changed the established societies. The familiar (used and abused) vocabulary of freedom, justice, and equality could thus obtain not only new meaning but also new reality the reality which emerged in the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries and led to less restricted forms of freedom, justice, and equality.
Today, the rupture with the linguistic universe of the Establishment is more radical: in the most militant areas of protest, it amounts to a methodical reversal of meaning. It is a familiar phenomenon that sub-cultural groups develop their own language, taking the harmless words of everyday communication out of their context and using them for designating objects or activities tabooed by the Establishment. This is the Hippie subculture: “trip,” “grass,” “pot,” “acid,” and so on. But a far more subversive universe of discourse announces itself in the language of black militants. Here is a systematic linguistic rebellion, which smashes the ideological context in which the words are employed and defined, and places them into the opposite context – negation of the established one. Thus, the blacks “take over” some of the most sublime and sublimated concepts of Western civilization, desublimate them, and redefine them. For example, the -soul” (in its essence lily-white ever since Plato), the traditional seat of everything that is truly human in man, tender, deep, immortal – the word which has become embarrassing, corny, false in the established universe of discourse, has been desublimated and in this transsubstantiation, migrated to the Negro culture: they are soul brothers; the soul is black, violent, orgiastic; it is no longer in Beethoven, Schubert, but in the blues, in jazz, in rock ‘n’ roll, in -soul food.” Similarly, the militant slogan “black is beautiful” redefines another central concept of the traditional culture by reversing its symbolic value and associating it with the anti-color of darkness, tabooed magic, the uncanny. The ingression of the aesthetic into the political also appears at the other pole of the rebellion against the society of affluent capitalism, among the nonconformist youth. Here, too, the reversal of meaning, driven to the point of open contradiction: giving flowers to the police, “flower power” – the redefinition and very negation of the sense of “power”; the erotic belligerency in the songs of protest; the sensuousness of long hair, of the body unsoiled by plastic cleanliness.
These political manifestations of a new sensibility indicate the depth of the rebellion, of the rupture with the continuum of repression. They bear witness to the power of the society in shaping the whole of experience, the whole metabolism between the organism and its environment. Beyond the physiological level, the exigencies of sensibility develop as historical ones: the objects which the senses confront and apprehend are the products of a specific stage of civilization and of a specific society, and the senses in turn are geared to their objects. This historical interrelation affects even the primary sensations: an established society imposes upon all its members the same medium of perception; and through all the differences of individual and class perspectives, horizons, backgrounds, society provides the same general universe of experience. Consequently, the rupture with the continuum of aggression and exploitation would also break with the sensibility geared to this universe. Today’s rebels want to see, hear, feel new things in a new way: they link liberation with the dissolution of ordinary and orderly perception. The “trip” involves the dissolution of the ego shaped by the established society – an artificial and short-lived dissolution. But the artificial and “private” liberation anticipates, in a distorted manner, an exigency of the social liberation: the revolution must be at the same time a revolution in perception which will accompany the material and intellectual reconstruction of society, creating the new aesthetic environment.
Awareness of the need for such a revolution in perception, for a new sensorium, is perhaps the kernel of truth in the psychedelic search. But it is vitiated when its narcotic character brings temporary release not only from the reason and rationality of the established system but also from that other rationality which is to change the established system, when sensibility is freed not only from the exigencies of the existing order but also from those of liberation. Intentionally non-committed, the withdrawal creates its artificial paradises within the society from which it withdrew. They thus remain subject to the law of this society, which punishes the inefficient performances. In contrast, the radical transformation of society implies the union of the new sensibility with a new rationality. The imagination becomes productive if it becomes the mediator between sensibility on the one hand, and theoretical as well as practical reason on the other, and in this harmony of faculties (in which Kant saw the token of freedom) guides the reconstruction of society. Such a union has been the distinguishing feature of art, but its realization has been stopped at the point at which it would have become incompatible with the basic institutions and social relationships. The material culture, the reality, continued to lag behind the progress of reason and imagination and to condemn much of these faculties to irreality, fantasy, fiction. Art could not become a technique in reconstructing reality; the sensibility remained repressed, and the experience mutilated. But the revolt against repressive reason which released the chained power of the aesthetic in the new sensibility has also radicalized it in art: the value and function of art are undergoing essential changes. They affect the affirmative character of art (by virtue of which art has the power of reconciliation with the status quo), and the degree of sublimation (which militated against the realization of the truth, of the cognitive force of art). The protest against these features of art spreads through the entire universe of art prior to the First World War and continues with increased intensity: it gives voice and image to the negative power of art, and to the tendencies toward a desublimation of culture.
The emergence of contemporary art (I shall use “art” throughout as including the visual arts as well as literature and music) means more than the traditional replacement of one style by another. Non-objective, abstract painting and sculpture, stream-of-consciousness and formalist literature, twelve-tone composition, blues and jazz: these are not merely new modes of perception reorienting and intensifying the old ones; they rather dissolve the very structure of perception in order to make room – for what? The new object of art is not yet “given,” but the familiar object has become impossible, false. From illusion, imitation, harmony to reality – but the reality is not yet “given”; it is not the one which is the object of “realism.” Reality has to be discovered and projected. The senses must learn not to see things anymore in the medium of that law and order which has formed them; the bad functionalism which organizes our sensibility must be smashed.
From the beginning, the new art insists on its radical autonomy in tension or conflict with the development of the Bolshevik Revolution and the revolutionary movements activated by it. Art remains alien to the revolutionary praxis by virtue of the artist’s commitment to Form: Form as art’s own reality, as die Sache selbst. The Russian “formalist” B. Eikhenbaum insists:
La notion de forme a obtenu un sens nouveau, elle n'est plus une enveloppe, mais une intégrité dynamique et concrète qui a un contenu en elle-même, hors de toute corrélation.
Form is the achievement of the artistic perception which breaks the unconscious and “false” “automatism,” the unquestioned familiarity which operates in every practice, including the revolutionary practice – an automatism of immediate experience, but a socially engineered experience which militates against the liberation of sensibility. The artistic perception is supposed to shatter this immediacy which, in truth, is a historical product: the medium of experience imposed by the established society but coagulating into a self-sufficient, closed, “automatic” system:
Ainsi la vie disparaît, se transformant en un rien. L'automatisation avale les objets, les habits, les meubles, la femme et la peur de la guerre
If this deadly system of life is to be changed without being replaced by another deadly one, men must learn to develop the new sensibility of life of their own life and that of things:
Et voilà que pour rendre la sensation de la vie, pour sentir les objets, pour éprouver que la pierre est de pierre, existe ce que l'on appelle l'art. Le but de Fart, c'est de donner une sensation de l'objet comme vision et non pas comme reconnaissance; le procède de Fart est le procède de singularisation des objets et le procède qui consiste à obscurcir la forme, à augmenter la difficulté et la durée de la perception. L'acte de perception en art est une fin en soi et doit être prolonge ; l'art est un moyen d'éprouver le devenir de l'objet; ce qui est déjà ‘devenu’, n'importe pas pour l'art.
I have referred to the Formalists because it seems characteristic that the transformative element in art is emphasized by a school which insists on the artistic perception as end-in-itself, on the Form as Content. It is precisely the Form by virtue of which art transcends the given reality, works in the established reality against the established reality; and this transcendent element is inherent in art, in the artistic dimension. Art alters experience by reconstructing the objects of experience reconstructing them in word, tone, image. Why? Evidently, the “language” of art must communicate a truth, an objectivity which is not accessible to ordinary language and ordinary experience. This exigency explodes in the situation of contemporary art.
The radical character, the “violence” of this reconstruction in contemporary art seems to indicate that it does not rebel against one style or another but against “style” itself, against the art-form of art, against the traditional “meaning” of art.
The great artistic rebellion in the period of the first World War gives the signal.
Wir setzen grossen Jahrhunderten ein Nein entgegen ... (Wir) gehen, zur spottischen Verwunderung unserer Mitwelt, einen Seitenweg, der kaum ein Weg zu sein scheint, und sagen: Dies ist die Hauptstrasse der Menschheitsentwicklung.
The fight is against the “Illusionistische Kunst Europas”: art must no longer be illusory because its relation to reality has changed: the latter has become susceptible to, even dependent on, the transforming function of art. The revolutions and the defeated and betrayed revolutions which occurred in the wake of the war denounced a reality which had made art an illusion, and inasmuch as art has been an illusion (schäner Schein), the new art proclaims itself as anti-art. Moreover, the illusory art incorporated the established ideas of possession (Besitzvorstellungen) naïvely into its forms of representation: it did not question the object-character (die Dinglichkeiten) of the world as subject to man. Art must break with this reification: it must become gemalte oder modellierte Erkenntniskritik, based on a new optic replacing the Newtonian optic, and this art would correspond to a “type of man who is not like us."
Since then, the eruption of anti-art in art has manifested itself in many familiar forms: destruction of syntax, fragmentation of words and sentences, explosive use of ordinary language, compositions without score, sonatas for anything. And yet, this entire de-formation is Form: anti-art has remained art, supplied, purchased, and contemplated as art.
The wild revolt of art has remained a short-lived shock, quickly absorbed in the art gallery, within the four walls, in the concert hall, by the market, and adorning the plazas and lobbies of the prospering business establishments. Transforming the intent of art is self-defeating – a self-defeat built into the very structure of art. No matter how affirmative, “realistic” the oeuvre may be, the artist has given it a form which is not part of the reality he presents and in which he works. The oeuvre is unreal precisely inasmuch as it is art: the novel is not a newspaper story, the still life not alive, and even in pop art the real tin can is not in the supermarket. The very Form of art contradicts the effort to do away with the segregation of art to a “second reality,” to translate the truth of the productive imagination into the first reality.
The Form of art: we must once again glance at the philosophical tradition which has focused the analysis of art on the concept of the “beautiful” (in spite of the fact that so much of art is obviously not beautiful!). The beautiful has been interpreted as ethical and cognitive “value”: the kalokagathon; the beautiful as sensuous appearance of the Idea; the Way of Truth passes through the realm of the Beautiful. What is meant by these metaphors?
The root of the aesthetic is in sensibility. What is beautiful is first sensuous: it appeals to the senses; it is pleasurable, object of unsublimated drives. However, the beautiful seems to occupy a position halfway between sublimated and unsublimated objectives. Beauty is not an essential, “organic” feature of the immediate sex-object (it may even deter the unsublimated drive!), while, at the other extreme, a mathematical theorem can be called “beautiful” only in a highly abstract, figurative sense. It seems that the various connotations of beauty converge in the idea of Form.
In the aesthetic Form, the content (matter) is assembled, defined, and arranged to obtain a condition in which the immediate, unmastered forces of the matter, of the “material,” are mastered, “ordered.” Form is the negation, the mastery of disorder, violence, suffering, even when it presents disorder, violence, suffering. This triumph of art is achieved by subjecting the content to the aesthetic order, which is autonomous in its exigencies. The work of art sets its own limits and ends, it is sinngebend in relating the elements to each other according to its own law: the “form” of the tragedy, novel, sonata, picture . . . The content is thereby transformed: it obtains a meaning (sense) which transcends the elements of the content, and this transcending order is the appearance of the beautiful as the truth of art. The way in which the tragedy narrates the fate of Oedipus and the city, in which it orders the sequence of events, gives word to the unsaid and to the unspeakable – the “Form” of the tragedy terminates the horror with the end of the play – it brings the destruction to a standstill, it makes the blind seeing, the intolerable tolerable and understandable, it subordinates the wrong, the contingent, the evil, to “poetic justice.” The phrase is indicative of the internal ambivalence of art: to indict that which is, and to “cancel” the indictment in the aesthetic form, redeeming the suffering, the crime. This “redeeming,” reconciling power seems inherent in art, by virtue of its being art, by virtue of its form-giving power.
The redeeming, reconciling power of art adheres even to the most radical manifestations of non-illusory art and anti-art. They are still oeuvres: paintings, sculptures, compositions, poems, and as such they have their own form and with it their own order: their own frame (though it may be invisible), their own space, their own beginning, and their own end. The aesthetic necessity of art supersedes the terrible necessity of reality, sublimates its pain and pleasure; the blind suffering and cruelty of nature (and of the “nature” of man) assume meaning and end – “poetic justice.” The horror of the crucifixion is purified by the beautiful face of Jesus dominating the beautiful composition, the horror of politics by the beautiful verse of Racine, the horror of farewell forever by the Lied von der Erde. And in this aesthetic universe, joy and fulfillment find their proper place alongside pain and death – everything is in order again. The indictment is canceled, and even defiance, insult, and derision – the extreme artistic negation of art – succumb to this order.
With this restoration of order, the Form indeed achieves a katharsis – the terror and the pleasure of reality are purified. But the achievement is illusory, false, fictitious: it remains within the dimension of art, a work of art; in reality, fear and frustration go on unabated (as they do, after the brief katharsis, in the psyche). This is perhaps the most telling expression of the contradiction, the self-defeat, built into art: the pacifying conquest of matter, the transfiguration of the object remain unreal – just as the revolution in perception remains unreal. And this vicarious character of art has, time and again, given rise to the question as to the justification of art: was the Parthenon worth the sufferings of a single slave? Is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz? The question has been countered: when the horror of reality tends to become total and blocks political action, where else than in the radical imagination, as refusal of reality, can the rebellion, and its uncompromised goals, be remembered? But today, are the images and their realization still the domain of “illusory” art?
We suggested the historical possibility of conditions in which the aesthetic could become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft and as such could lead to the “end” of art through its realization. Today, the outline of such conditions appears only in the negativity of the advanced industrial societies. They are societies whose capabilities defy the imagination. No matter what sensibility art may wish to develop, no matter what Faun it may wish to give to things, to life, no matter what vision it may wish to communicate – a radical change of experience is within the technical reaches of powers whose terrible imagination organizes the world in their own image and perpetuates, ever bigger and better, the mutilated experience.
However, the productive forces, chained in the infrastructure of these societies, counteract this negativity in progress. To be sure, the libertarian possibilities of technology and science are effectively contained within the framework of the given reality: the calculated projection and engineering of human behavior, the frivolous invention of waste and luxurious junk, the experimentation with the limits of endurance and destruction are tokens of the mastery of necessity in the interest of exploitation – which indicate nevertheless progress in the mastery of necessity. Released from the bondage to exploitation, the imagination, sustained by the achievements of science, could turn its productive power to the radical reconstruction of experience and the universe of experience. In this reconstruction, the historical topos of the aesthetic would change: it would find expression in the transformation of the Lebenswelt – society as a work of art. This “utopian” goal depends (as every stage in the development of freedom did) on a revolution at the attainable level of liberation. In other words: the transformation is conceivable only as the way in which free men (or rather men in the practice of freeing themselves) shape their life in solidarity, and build an environment in which the struggle for existence loses its ugly and aggressive features. The Form of freedom is not merely self-determination and self-realization, but rather the determination and realization of goals which enhance, protect, and unite life on earth. And this autonomy would find expression not only in the mode of production and production relations but also in the individual relations among men, in their language and in their silence, in their gestures and their looks, in their sensitivity, in their love and hate. The beautiful would be an essential quality of their freedom.
But today’s rebels against the established culture also rebel against the beautiful in this culture, against its all too sublimated, segregated, orderly, harmonizing forms. Their libertarian aspirations appear as the negation of the traditional culture: as a methodical desublimation. Perhaps its strongest impetus comes from social groups which thus far have remained outside the entire realm of the higher culture, outside its affirmative, sublimating, and justifying magic – human beings who have lived in the shadow of this culture, the victims of the power structure which has been the basis of this culture. They now oppose to the “music of the spheres” which was the most sublime achievement of this culture their own music, with all the defiance, and the hatred, and the joy of rebellious victims, defining their own humanity against the definitions of the masters. The black music, invading the white culture, is the terrifying realization of “O Freunde, nicht these Tone!” – the refusal now hits the chorus which sings the Ode to Joy, the song which is invalidated in the culture that sings it. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus knows it: “I want to revoke the Ninth Symphony.” In the subversive, dissonant, crying and shouting rhythm, born in the “dark continent” and in the “deep South” of slavery and deprivation, the oppressed revoke the Ninth Symphony and give art a desublimated, sensuous form of frightening immediacy, moving, electrifying the body, and the soul materialized in the body. Black music is originally music of the oppressed, illuminating the extent to which the higher culture and its sublime sublimations, its beauty, have been class-based. The affinity between black music (and its avant-gardistic white development) and the political rebellion against the “affluent society” bears witness to the increasing desublimation of culture.
It is still the simple, elementary negation, the antithesis: position of the immediate denial. This desublimation leaves the traditional culture, the illusionist art behind unmastered: their truth and their claims remain valid next to and together with the rebellion, within the same given society. The rebellious music, literature, art are thus easily absorbed and shaped by the market – rendered harmless. In order to come into their own, they would have to abandon the direct appeal, the raw immediacy of their presentation, which invokes, in the protest, the familiar universe of politics and business, and with it the helpless familiarity of frustration and temporary release from frustration. Was it not precisely the rupture with this familiarity which was the methodical goal of radical art? The abrogation of the Estrangement Effect (which, to a considerable extent, was also operative in the great illusionist art) defeats the radicalism of today’s art. Thus, the “living theater” founders to the degree to which it is living, to which we immediately identify ourselves with the actors, experience our familiar sympathies, empathies, antipathies. The theater does not transcend this familiarity, this “dejâ vu” – it strengthens it. Just like the more and more organized “happenings,” like the ever more marketable pop art, this ambiance creates a deceptive “community” within the society.
The conquest of this immediate familiarity, the “mediations” which would make the many forms of rebellious art a liberating force on the societal scale (that is to say, a subverting force) are yet to be attained. They would reside in modes of work and pleasure, of thought and behavior, in a technology and in a natural environment which express the aesthetic ethos of socialism. Then, art may have lost its privileged, and segregated, dominion over the imagination, the beautiful, the dream. This may be the future, but the future ingresses into the present: in its negativity, the desublimating art and anti-art of today “anticipate” a stage where society’s capacity to produce may be akin to the creative capacity of art, and the construction of the world of art akin to the reconstruction of the real world – union of liberating art and liberating technology. By virtue of this anticipation, the disorderly, uncivil, farcical, artistic desublimation of culture constitutes an essential element of radical politics: of the subverting forces in transition.
3 – Subverting Forces – in Transition
The notion of “aesthetic form” as the Form of a free society would indeed mean reversing the development of socialism from scientific to utopian unless we can point to certain tendencies in the infrastructure of advanced industrial society which may give this notion a realistic content. We have repeatedly referred to such tendencies: first of all the growing technological character of the process of production, with the reduction of the required physical energy and its replacement by mental energy – dematerialization of labor. At the same time, an increasingly automated machine system, no longer used as the system of exploitation, would allow that “distantiation” of the laborer from the instruments of production which Marx foresaw at the end of capitalism: the workers would cease to be the “principal agents” of material production, and become its “supervisors and regulators” – the emergence of a free subject within the realm of necessity. Already today, the achievements of science and technology permit the play of the productive imagination: experimentation with the possibilities of form and matter hitherto enclosed in the density of unmastered nature; the technical transformation of nature tends to make things lighter, easier, prettier – the loosening up of reification. The material becomes increasingly susceptible and subject to aesthetic forms, which enhance its exchange value (the artistic, modernistic banks, office buildings, kitchens, salesrooms, and salespeople, etc.). And within the framework of capitalism, the tremendous growth in the productivity of labor enforces the ever-enlarged production of “luxuries”: wasteful in the armament industry, and in the marketing of gadgets, devices, trimmings, status symbols.
This same trend of production and consumption, which makes for the affluence and attraction of advanced capitalism, makes for the perpetuation of the struggle for existence, for the increasing necessity to produce and consume the non-necessary: the growth of the so-called “discretionary income” in the United States indicates the extent to which income earned is spent on other than “basic needs.” Former luxuries become basic needs, a normal development which, under corporate capitalism, extends the competitive business of living to newly created needs and satisfactions. The fantastic output of all sorts of things and services defies the imagination, while restricting and distorting it in the commodity form, through which capitalist production enlarges its hold over human existence. And yet, precisely through the spread of this commodity form, the repressive social morality which sustains the system is being weakened. The obvious contradiction between the liberating possibilities of the technological transformation of the world, the light and free life on the one hand and the intensification of the struggle for existence on the other, generates among the underlying population that diffused aggressiveness which, unless steered to hate and fight the alleged national enemy, hits upon any suitable target: white or black, native or foreigner, Jew or Christian, rich or poor.
This is the aggressiveness of those with the mutilated experience, with the false consciousness and the false needs, the victims of repression who, for their living, depend on the repressive society and repress the alternative. Their violence is that of the Establishment and takes as targets figures which, rightly or wrongly, seem to be different, and to represent an alternative.
But while the image of the libertarian potential of advanced industrial society is repressed (and hated) by the managers of repression and their consumers, it motivates the radical opposition and gives it its strange unorthodox character. Very different from the revolution at previous stages of history, this opposition is directed against the totality of a well-functioning, prosperous society – a protest against its Form – the commodity form of men and things, against the imposition of false values and a false morality. This new consciousness and the instinctual rebellion isolate such opposition from the masses and from the majority of organized labor, the integrated majority, and make for the concentration of radical politics in active minorities, mainly among the young middle-class intelligentsia, and among the ghetto populations. Here, prior to all political strategy and organization, liberation becomes a vital, “biological” need.
It is of course nonsense to say that middle-class opposition is replacing the proletariat as the revolutionary class, and that the Lumpenproletariat is becoming a radical political force. What is happening is the formation of still relatively small and weakly organized (often disorganized) groups which, by virtue of their consciousness and their needs, function as potential catalysts of rebellion within the majorities to which, by their class origin, they belong. In this sense, the militant intelligentsia has indeed cut itself loose from the middle classes, and the ghetto population from the organized working class. But by that token they do not think and act in a vacuum: their consciousness and their goals make them representatives of the very real common interest of the oppressed. As against the rule of class and national interests which suppress this common interest, the revolt against the old societies is truly international: emergence of a new, spontaneous solidarity. This struggle is a far cry from the ideal of humanism and humanitas; it is the struggle for life – life not as masters and not as slaves, but as men and women.
For Marxian theory, the location (or rather contraction) of the opposition in certain middle-class strata and in the ghetto population appears as an intolerable deviation – as does the emphasis on biological and aesthetic needs: regression to bourgeois or, even worse, aristocratic, ideologies. But, in the advanced monopoly-capitalist countries, the displacement of the opposition (from the organized industrial working classes to militant minorities) is caused by the internal development of the society; and the theoretical “deviation” only reflects this development. What appears as a surface phenomenon is indicative of basic tendencies which suggest not only different prospects of change, but also a depth and extent of change far beyond the expectations of traditional socialist theory. Under this aspect, the displacement of the negating forces from their traditional base among the underlying population, rather than being a sign of the weakness of the opposition against the integrating power of advanced capitalism, may well be the slow formation of a new base, bringing to the fore the new historical Subject of change, responding to the new objective conditions, with qualitatively different needs and aspirations. And on this base (probably intermittent and preliminary) goals and strategies take shape which reexamine the concepts of democratic-parliamentary as well as of revolutionary transformation.
The modifications in the structure of capitalism alter the basis for the development and organization of potentially revolutionary forces. Where the traditional laboring classes cease to be the “gravediggers” of capitalism, this function remains, as it were, suspended, and the political efforts toward change remain “tentative,” preparatory not only in a temporal but also in a structural sense. This means that the “addressees” as well as the immediate goals and occasions of action will he determined by the shifting situation rather than by a theoretically well-founded and elaborated strategy. This determinism, direct consequence of the strength of the system and the diffusion of the opposition, also implies a shift of emphasis toward “subjective factors”: the development of awareness and needs assumes primary importance. Under total capitalist administration and introjection, the social determination of consciousness is all but complete and immediate: direct implantation of the latter into the former. Under these circumstances, radical change in consciousness is the beginning, the first step in changing social existence: emergence of the new Subject. Historically, it is again the period of enlightenment prior to material change – a period of education, but education which turns into praxis: demonstration, confrontation, rebellion.
The radical transformation of a social system still depends on the class which constitutes the human base of the process of production. In the advanced capitalist countries, this is the industrial working class. The changes in the composition of this class, and the extent of its integration into the system alter, not the potential but the actual political role of labor. Revolutionary class “in-itself” but not “for-itself,” objectively but not subjectively, its radicalization will depend on catalysts outside its ranks. The development of a radical political consciousness among the masses is conceivable only if and when the economic stability and the social cohesion of the system begin to weaken. It was the traditional role of the Marxist-Leninist party to prepare the ground for this development. The stabilizing and integrating power of advanced capitalism, and the requirements of “peaceful coexistence,” forced this party to “parliamentarize” itself, to integrate itself into the bourgeois-democratic process, and to concentrate on economic demands, thereby inhibiting rather than promoting the growth of a radical political consciousness. Where the latter broke through the party and trade union apparatus, it happened under the impact of “outside” forces – mainly from among the intelligentsia; the apparatus only followed suit when the movement gained momentum, and in order to regain control of it.
No matter how rational this strategy may be, no matter how sensible the desperate effort to preserve strength in the face of the sustained power of corporate capitalism, the strategy testifies to the “passivity” of the industrial working classes, to the degree of their integration it testifies to the facts which the official theory so vehemently denies. Under the conditions of integration, the new political consciousness of the vital need for radical change emerges among social groups which, on objective grounds, are (relatively) free from the integrating, conservative interests and aspirations, free for the radical transvaluation of values. Without losing its historical role as the basic force of transformation, the working class, in the period of stabilization, assumes a stabilizing, conservative function; and the catalysts of transformation operate “from without.”
This tendency is strengthened by the changing composition of the working class. The declining proportion of blue collar labor, the increasing number and importance of white collar employees, technicians, engineers, and specialists, divides the class. This means that precisely those strata of the working class which bore, and still bear, the brunt of brute exploitation will perform a gradually diminishing function in the process of production. The intelligentsia obtains an increasingly decisive role in this process – an instrumentalist intelligentsia, but intelligentsia nevertheless. This “new working class,” by virtue of its position, could disrupt, reorganize, and redirect the mode and relationships of production. However, they have neither the interest nor the vital need to do so: they are well integrated and well rewarded. To be sure, monopolistic competition and the race for intensifying the productivity of labor may enforce technological changes which may come into conflict with still prevailing policies and forms of private capitalist enterprise, and these changes may then lead to a technocratic reorganization of large sectors of the society (even of its culture and ideology). But it is not clear why they would lead to an abolition of the capitalist system, of the subjugation of the underlying population to the apparatus of profitable production for particular interests. Such a qualitative change would presuppose the control and redirection of the productive apparatus by groups with needs and goals very different from those of the technocrats.
[unpublished] Book ReviewMarcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation
Pp x, 91. Boston: Beacon Press,1969.
Published in 1969 in the midst of the ferment of popular uprisings and movements across the globe, An Essay on Liberation written by the late Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and a mentor of contemporary political activists and critical theorists such as Angela Davis and Douglas Kellner, explores a number of crucial terrains -- material, cultural, political -- and poses a number of engaging questions that require the attention of those currently attempting to rebuild Left movements and critical analysis.
In the introduction to his essay, Marcuse warns against the bureaucratic and repressive state formations of the Soviet socialist experiment and posits a provocative query, in the masculinist language of the day, which remains a pressing challenge to those on the Left. Marcuse submits, "The question is no longer: how can the individual satisfy his own needs withoug hurting others, but rather: how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude?" (4). What is at the root of Marcuse's statement is the recognition that a market economic system reliant upon the cycle of production and consumption (i.e. supply and demand) in order to operate, necessitates the creation, socialization, and reproduction of the psychological basis for continuous consumption. Thus contemporary market identities are highly shaped by the forces of consumption, backed by media-advertising, educational, and social institutions that cooperate to create avid consumers that drive the profit-driven, capitalist, market economy. Such a statement invites interrogation beyond traditional Left emphasis on political economy, into the the convoluted arenas of aesthetics, desire, culture, and psychology.
Marcuse does not merely reveal new terrains of struggle and inquiry without himself entering into the fray. In the next chapter, entitled "A Biological Foundation for Socialism?", Marcuse further elaborates on his earlier remarks.
The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinaly and agressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people... has become a "biological" need... The second nature of man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this dependence of man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise -- abolish his existence as a consumer consuming himself in buying and selling. The needs generated by this system are thus eminently stabilizing, conservative needs: the counterrevloution anchored in the instinctual structure (11).Corporate capitalism, in Marcuse's argument, creates the needs within human beings by which the purchase and use (consumption) of technology and commodities becomes a necessary component of human "actualization." He argues that the frustration and aggression arising from life in capitalist civilization -- with its overt and subtle forms of exploitation, oppression, and regimentation -- finds its outlet through the consumption of commodities. Values such as self-determination are re-defined in terms of the perceived control and autonomous use of commodities as well as the freedoms within constraints that become naturalized as part of the capitalist social order. Marcuse thus radically calls into question the validity of happiness in capitalist civilization, arguing for objective criteria beyond socially constructed subjective emotion. The pervasiveness of consumer identities and its conservative and counterrevolutionary consequences becomes one of the impediments for the revolutionizing of the working class. Radical working class consciousness becomes effectively obstructed as long as the consumption-based needs and identities of human beings remain intact and psycho-biologically connected to the maintenance of the capitalist status quo. Liberation, therefore, entails the subversion of the psychological and socialized attachment to commodity consumption, and the re-envisioning and redefinition of new values and needs emancipated from the standardized pleasure, status, and symbols which reproduce the contemporary capitalist political-economic system.
[to be continued]