ه‍.ش. ۱۳۹۵ اسفند ۱۳, جمعه

Self Under Siege (Part 4): Herbert Marcuse and one-dimensional man

Roderick focuses his fourth lecture on Herbert Marcuse, who according to him is the philosopher of the 1960s. One important aspect of Marcuse’s philosophy is his emphasize on a contradiction that has been always a key part of modernity, understanding of which is vital to the topic of self under siege. Enlightenment is the familiar word that marks out the start of modernity, which sets out to free human being from dogma, superstition, and adherence to prejudice. This is what Kant in his essay titled “What is enlightenment” argues, that enlightenment is the era in which human beings are dared to use their own reason. The process of enlightenment is fuelled by both the rise of capitalism and the considerable increase in the power of science which in turn has given rise to technological advancement.

However, enlightenment’s attempt to demystify the world, to see the world as if it were transparent to reason, carried with itself a strange dark side. As the enlightenment project has been successful to “clear the field” of religious beliefs, and although human beings increasingly cling to instrumental reason and science to “progress”, it has not been the case that we are less afraid in the face of the unknown, if anything the unknown has appeared to be more terrifying than ever. You can clearly notice this today for example as you watch TV, or when you listen to the kind of fear mongering ideas driving the public, political campaigns, racial conflicts, etc. The rise of enlightenment, Marcuse argues, has not made us less dogmatic. As a matter of fact, the sciences have now branched out into so many areas and sub-disciplines that the only way anyone can believe in any of them is to be dogmatic because we cannot possibly acquire enough time or mental capacity to learn even a few of them. Mainstream economics is perhaps a good example of this predicament, when a good majority of economists sit in their ivory towers judging and insulting other disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, and psychology without knowing virtually anything about these disciplines, or use economic models to explain virtually everything using sometimes a very crude and naïve understanding of fundamental concepts involved.

Enlightenment, in a paradoxical way, has built up a kind of intellect intelligent enough to see through this demystification, but any intellect that powerful has the tendency to become totalitarian. Enlightenment while clearing the field of religious beliefs has created another type of obedience, perhaps through overpowering forces of technology, that is quite salient in human being’s abject surrender to technology today, which in some cases is even more pronounced than it was the case with religious beliefs. Just take a look around you: all the zambi-esque individuals you see on the subway everyday or in your fun friendly get-togethers, frantically sweeping their fingers up and down the shiny screen of their smartphones looking for “fun” or “facts”; the hysteric tourists on a trip with their eyes wide shut, unable to take in and digest the beauty of the moment, but cameras, cellphones and tablets pointing at every direction, often their own narcissistic being, trying to capture happiness and memory into digital files; Self-claimed religious critiques and social theorists who have read a couple of books from Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris and now are under the illusion that they are capable to analyze and criticize the entire history of religion and religious beliefs and unearth the ignorance buried deep within; the stronger-than-religious-faith belief in a secular system that has produced misery, violence, and despotism on par with tyrannic religious institutions; the current state of power of technology that far surpasses the characteristics we associate with God (the apocalypse, a magnificent myth in the book of revelation, has now become a technologically-achievable reality in our society, abundant as a popular theme in Hollywood movies).

Roderick argues that because the enlightenment project focused upon reason as individuated and atomic, it failed to understand that the overall outcome in many situations could defy rationality even when individual agents engage in completely rational behaviour (John Nash teaches us that the equilibrium outcome of an strategic interaction does not necessarily achieve the socially optimal outcome as Adam Smith suggests, in fact in many cases it could lead us to the worst outcome possible, the 2008 financial crisis and the driving forces behind it would be a good example of this situation). The enlightenment, despite its nobel focus on reason, in its process of demystifying religion itself became a source of mystification.  This take us back to the main theme of this course: the self under siege could never find meaning in such denuded form of thinking and living where we are only focused on instrumental reason and individuated rational decision making. This is certainly not a rich-enough notion of experience for human life which would take us down the path of an examined life that is worth living. The enlightenment project, Marcuse argues, carried myth right along with it and did not succeed to eliminate it. The entwinement between enlightenment and mythology is perhaps one of the key elements to understand our situation today, the era of quasi-mythological technologies, the era of virtual reality and scientology, the era of “I Fucking Love Science” crowds whose depth of knowledge is as shallow and their faith is as strong and as blind as an average religious man in medieval times. Here lies Marcuse’s fundamental criticism of our modern technological society. Needless to say that Marcuse does not suggest that we should through out instrumental reason altogether, he argues that if we don’t find a more balanced approach to ourselves, our world, and other people, and our relation to instrumental reason, then we are all lost.

Marcuse, in his critique of modern life and enlightenment mainly focuses on issues of social world, which is contrast to inner-world issues discussed in previous posts/lectures. Therefore, in a way his critique follows the tradition of Marx which highlights issues like alienation, or that of Weber which explores rationalization (Franz Kafka elegantly depicts the latter in Trial and Castle). Roderick adds a third issue to the list, which he calls banalization. One good example of banalization is the ideological treatment you get from TV or movies, which turn complicated social, personal or political issues such as violence, corruption, racism, terrorism, homosexuality, religion, love, or sex into banality, turns everything that is a threat to the system and its structures of power into banality as a form of social control. This also applies to our current education system and its outputs.

In exploring these issues of social world, Marcuse raises the following question: how does a way of life break down? The answer to this question is not the simple one offered by Marx, which is to point the finger at economic conditions. The are many factors in our modern life today, Roderick argues, that could break down our way of life. One general theme that he highlights is the refusal and fear of dealing with complexity and ambiguity. This is a familiar theme in the light of recent events in the US and the election of Donald Trump, which in many respects was the result of turning complex social and political issues into caricatures that could be easily digested in a culture of amnesia that is provoked and stimulated by empty talking points and shallow commentary, a culture blocked by structures of cynical and skeptical reason that wants to go back to golden years that never existed the way they are depicted today, a society where individuals believe nothing, expect nothing, hope nothing, dream nothing, and desire nothing (things that “matter” in relation to the “self”). The interesting thing, as Marcuse emphasizes, is that this is not the result of lack of rationality in our society today as many would suggest, but rather due to alienation, rationalization, and the banalization propagated in the structures of our modern life and society.


It is perhaps important to note that Marcuse’s criticism of enlightenment, capitalism, and rationality is that of “imminent critique”, which takes historic accumulated concepts and confronts them with historically existent realities to measure the gap between the practice and promise, to measure the society within those concepts that were developed within it. In other words, Marcuse does not draw on some external norms from a utopian situation to articulate his criticism, but rather uses our current terms and conditions, which makes his approach utterly fair and reasonable. However, it seems that in the 21st century we have now outlived the responses that Marcuse would have given to our current predicament. Marcuse believes in truth while we live in a post-truth time, he believes in human being’s happy destiny as we get closer and closer to the verge of environmental disaster. The irony is that while Marcuse was considered a radical thinker of the 60s, he is not radical at all by the standards of the world we have slipped in.

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