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Herbert Marcuse: Life and Philosophies Essay

Herbert Marcuse was born in 1898 in Berlin and studied in Freiburg where he received his PhD in 1922 in Literature. His life was mainly portrayed in his various roles as a philosopher, social theorist, and political activist and university professor. Known to us as the “father of the New Left”, he has authored many books and articles in support of his thoughts. During his early years of career, he has worked with Martin Heidegger, then one of the most influential thinkers in Germany and who he has regarded his mentor.

His initial ideas on philosophical perspectives of phenomenology, existentialism, and Marxism were demonstrated in his first published article in 1928. He had offered a different view about Marxist thought and that is probably what scholars from the New Left had derived from him. He argued that there is much to Marxism that most Marxists have overlooked- it is more than a battle of transition from capitalism to socialism. He decided to join the Institut fur Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, later in Geneva and Columbia University.

He studied Hegel’s Ontology and Theory of Historicity in 1932. He published in 1933, a major review of Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts written by Marx in 1844, meant to correct the early interpretations of Marxist scholars. His theories were centered on critical perspectives on modern capitalism and revolutionary change and liberation from the rich; hence the essence of his “one-dimensional” society and his concept of “the great refusal”

Consequently, he became one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s. Here he has written “Reason and Revolution” (1941), which explored the birth of the ideas of Hegel, Marx, and modern social theory, introducing to English readers the Hegelian-Marxian tradition of dialectical thinking and social analysis.

He has worked as the head of the Central European bureau by the end of World War II, after which he returned to intellectual work and published Eros and Civilization in 1955 which is a synthesis of Marx and Freud arguing that the unconscious contained evidence of an instinctual drive toward happiness and freedom articulated in daydreams, works of art, philosophy, and other cultural products- a non-repressive civilization is imagined where libidinal and non-alienated labor, play, free and open sexuality manifest. He became a professor in Brandeis University and University of California in La Jolla.

He died in 1979. Herbert Marcuse’s contribution to social theory transcends others in his use of Philosophy in his explanations. For one, his Philosophy of Art is best characterized as “negative art”. His idea about a great art is one that is irrational, negative and destructive. Nonetheless, it is important in the society as it is useful. Again, going back from his Freudian cum Marxian critique of the capitalist society where this notion of art emanates; Freud’s psychology places a heavy emphasis on the role of (sexual) repression.

The reality principle replaces the pleasure principle in young children. This is the basis of civilized society, and nothing can satisfy these unconscious desires of adults. The self that represses and is disgusted by what is repressed is the adult, social self while the self that delights in the repressed is the childish, anti-social self. This repression is exemplified by folk characters such as Peter Pan. A modification was made by Marcuse by adding a difference between “necessary” and “surplus” repression. The former is essential for survival while the latter is demanded by other people (e. g. rulers).

Surplus repression is eliminated while necessary repression is minimized by progress. However, surplus repression is heightened by the elite. If it was necessary repression that was being challenged, we would have the duty to constrain the outrage that people express as a product of inner conflict and preserve civilization. So that we could conquer the surplus repression on the other hand, we must release our unnecessary desires from all repressions. The art then serves as the source of such revolution. These conceptions of repression are evident in his “Eros and Civilization”.

Any discussion about his Philosophy on Art would have to deal with this critical work. Eros and Civilization may be considered a Marxist interpretation of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Marcuse argued contrary to Freud that repression of the Libido is not a necessary precondition of civilization but only of a civilization limited by want and toil, which is of economic scarcity. (Eidelberg, 1969) Also, in One-Dimensional Man, he argued that subtle forms of repression exists amidst the freedom and affluence manifested in American society.

From these two, he was able top coin the term “repressive tolerance” which according to him is generated by an economy based on planned obsolescence and the production of wastes. While the economic establishment may produce useful and beneficial things, its existence depends primarily on the production of frivolous and even harmful things. And while it may sometimes satisfy “true” needs, more often it manufactures a multiplicity of “false” needs… (Eidelberg 1969) In addition, the products of the economy, like that in the entertainment industry needs creates this “false consciousness” thru the reactions, beliefs, ideas and feelings that it carries which immunes the industry against falseness.

The “true” needs are repressed because the manufacturing and gratification of artificial needs produce a feeling of satisfaction which constrains the individual from opposing economic and political structures. This is why “great art” for Marcuse is one that is able to liberate from the manufactured rationality, positivism and subtle repressions of the society- one that goes out of the normal, accepted and gratified.

There are certain forms of art that are meant to constitute the same ideas, sentiments and want that are categorized as “false” and are there to create a pleasant relationship between producers and consumers. Marcuse’s Philosophy of Art clearly follows his line of argumentations on “repression”. No good art would aim at participating in the creation of “false consciousness” and establish needs and wants that individuals do not regard as necessary. For Herbert Marcuse, “true needs” are those that the individual decides for him self because no need nor want may be dictated by any tribe, society, etc.

Most of Marcuse’s philosophy arises from his interpretation of Hegel’s. In his work, Reason and Revolution, Pippin says that: Most clearly, what Marcuse wants to preserve and defend in Hegel is the central place given in his system to “negativity”, the “power” of thought and action to reject and transform any putative “positive” reality, and the impossibility of understanding any such reality except in relation to this possibility. Accordingly, in Reason and Revolution, he again rejects in Hegel all those aspects of his thought that tend to suppress or overcome this negating potential (Pippin 1988 Cited in Anderson 1993)

It seems that this negativity will be the source and means of acquiring reason and knowledge that presupposes freedom from repression. This is the same negativity that Marcuse expresses in the “great” art. Anderson explains this “negativity in relation to Marx and Hegel: For Marx, as for Hegel, the dialectic takes note of the fact that the negation inherent in reality is “the moving and creative principle”. The dialectic is the dialectic of negativity… Negativity is important to Marx in part because economic realities exhibit their own inherent negativity.

Marcuse’s stress on Hegel’s concept of negativity is new and original. (Anderson 1993) Hence, certain types of art exhibit the principle of negativity that may not portray existing realities as the essence of reality may indeed be implicit yet is creative to convey ideas of the unknown and true. How then are Marcuse’s ideas especially his philosophies relevant in today’s society? I could only think of the prevailing culture and how such is played by media, capitalism, political structures and organizations.

How is repression exhibited by their activities and ideas? Which of our “true” needs are suppressed? Which of the needs they insist on the public are considered “false” needs? Where is art as the potential revolutionary tool to resist repression? Imagine television commercials that are made to promote certain products. While many are made to patronize the product, the demand has been created as a result of a dictation for the purpose of profit for the producer, tv network, etc. The demand created may only satisfy the superficial needs of the consumer.

For, even if the “will” of the individual to consume the product may be voluntary, it is nonetheless a form of participation to the orthodox or mainstream beliefs and desires. The tv commercial becomes the tool for the expansion of the “false consciousness”. The economic system created becomes a system of gratification of what seemingly appears as demand yet demand dictated by profit, ergo “false”. The “true” needs are repressed for the “true need” emerges as the ideas that are advocating liberation from the norm and comfortably accepted. Art could become a tool for this revolutionary endeavor.

In the same way that Art could be appreciated readily in the societal market, it could contain subtle thoughts and ideologies aimed at pursuing “true needs” with less confrontation and hindrances. Art may take various forms; paintings, music, architecture, literature, etc. While Art is also categorized as mainstream and peripheral, only those that are based on Reason may truly reflect realities and negate the economic rationalities presented in a repressed society. Herbert Marcuse has truly contributed a lot to the understanding of various societal aspects. His Philosophy of Art is a subject that is both enlightening and liberating.

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