Liberating the Critical in Critical Theory Transcending Marcuse on Alienation, Art and the Humanities (1)
What is the relationship of truth to beauty, learning to art, political education to human flourishing? Philosophers from Confucius and Aristotle to John Dewey and Paulo Freire have investigated, as the axial human problem, how education is to help us in accomplishing our own humanization. The contemporary search for a genuinely critical theory and an authentically democratic society continues that project. But what can make theory critical, education liberating, society democratic?
It is necessary to theorize our society critically if we are to have a vehicle for correctly informed transformative practice. The problem is that much of what is called critical theory today is rooted in ideas developed by Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Georg Lukacs. What I want to argue here is that their work has tended to formulate a particular approach to aesthetic educationand a unique version of a philosophical humanismwhich is then presented as critical theoryagainst the debilitating fragmentation of consciousness and profound numbing of the senses that are considered to be the major sources of our current cultural alienation. In this paper, I want to examine critically some of the problematic implications of Herbert Marcuse's philosophy in particular for an emancipatory theory of education.
Marcuse's continuing appeal stems especially from his work on the problems of knowledge and the political implications of education, particularly his critique of the prevailing mode of schooling in the United States as education to alienationand to single-dimensionality. It also arises from his emphasis on the emancipatory and dis-alienating potential of artand the humanities. It must be admitted from the start that Marcuse's analysis is unusually absorbing. Even those who strongly disagree with certain of his formulations, as I do, will find in him sources of immense insight into philosophical traditions largely eclipsed in the usual forms of U.S. higher education.
Marcuse philosophizes about education under conditions of oppression and alienation, and this concern and activity has been central to his entire intellectual effort. His work communicates the vibrancy of his German intellectual sources and an appreciation for much of the real stress and tension in our lives, which, as he finds, are continually torn in the conflicts between sensuousness and reason, longing and gratification. The essential connection of education to the attainment of the social potential of the human race is an integral part of his general theoretical discourse. Marcuse's final book, The Aesthetic Dimension(AD, 1978), deals importantly with the aesthetic sources of our wisdom and learning and with the theory of literary art. His relatively recently (1977) published doctoral dissertation, The German Artist Novel(originally completed in 1922) concerns itself with the education (Bildung) of the artist as this is depicted in modern German fiction.
Marcuse's unique emphasis on the humanities as a foundation for critical theory has a renewed relevance today as right wing commentators carry out their culture wars with regard to the literary canon, the place of values in schooling, and the role and function and future of the arts and humanities in higher education. (2) I want to underscore not only how this vindicates Marcuse's philosophy of education, I also want confront the theoretical limitations of his approach. The philosophical foundations of his work remain to be accurately identified and transcended. While his work is thought to be grounded in Hegel, Marx, and Freud, I find that his theory owes more to Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Heidegger. I am troubled by the way Marcuse's theories of art, alienation and the humanities displace Marx's structural analysis of social life to such an extent that his work also ultimately takes on ironically conservative political overtones. There is much to gain by casting Marcuse's uniquely developed analytical categories into relief, comparing them to those of the classical Marxist theory he sought to come to terms with throughout his career. I hold that the philosophical difficulties of Marcuse's theories of art and education hinge upon his reformulation of the analysis of alienation veering attention toward a concept of reification (as Verdinglichung) taken out of the materialist context of the Marxist economic analysis. In what follows I want to show why I consider this philosophical shift to debilitate our efforts to understand ourselves and extricate us from the oppressive conditions of our social lives.
Marcuse understands alienation as anaesthetization a deadening of the senses that makes repression and manipulation possible. He theorizes that art can act against alienationas a revitalizing, rehumanizing force. The educational goal Marcuse proposes is the restoration of the aesthetic dimensionas a source of cultural critique, political activism, and the guiding principles for the social organization of the future. In his estimation, our technological mindlessness and social fragmentation have to be educationally re-mediated through a broadened philosophy of the human condition emphasizing particularly the aesthetic roots of reason if ever we are to accomplish our own liberation. But Marcuse acknowledges that art can also contributeto an alienated existence. Alienation is understood in this second sense as a freely chosen act of withdrawal. It represents a self-conscious bracketing of certain of the practical and theoretical elements of everyday life for the sake of achieving a higher and more valuable philosophical distance and perspective. Marcuse contends that artists and intellectuals (especially) can utilize their own personal estrangement to serve a future emancipation. Art and philosophy (i.e., the humanities) can, by virtue of their admittedly elitist critical distance, oppose an oppressive status quo and furnish an intangible, yet concrete, telosby which to guide emancipatory social practice. Marcuse is attracted to the humanities because their subject matter and methodology are thought to focus upon questions of the meaning of human experience, rather than on the sheer description of data (this latter procedure being rejected as the "non-philosophical" approach of behaviorism and the physical sciences). He regards classical learning by means of discourse and reflection on philosophy, literature, drama, music, painting, sculpture, etc., as liberating insofar as it is thought to impel humanity beyond the "first dimension," the realm of mere fact, to the world of significance and meaning. As Marcuse sees it, the very form of beauty is dialectical. It unites the opposites of gratification and pain, death and love, repression and need, and therefore can authentically represent what he takes to be the conflicted, tragic, and paradoxical substance of human life. In Marcuse's view, the insights provided by these liberal studies are transhistorical and are considered the precondition to any political transformation of alienated human existence into authentic human existence. The liberal arts and humanities are not seen simply to transmit or to preserve (or as he says, to "affirm") culture. They make possible the very development of a "critical theory" and human intelligence itself. Here the arts relate to higher education and advanced forms of knowledge not merely in terms of "arts instruction," but as the very basis of a general educational theory.
Despite Marcuse's valuable attention elsewhere to issues of class, race and gender, he ultimately articulates a concept of literary-aesthetic education standing in disjunction from much sociological and historical methodology as well as from the philosophical categories generally associated with a dialectical or historical materialism. Political, historical, and educational issues are considered best understood out of art itselfand out of art alone. This aspect of Marcuse's approach, drawn from Dilthey, as well as the cultural radicalism of Nietzsche, asserts a logical and political-philosophical priority over his treatment of the thought of Hegel, Marx and Freud, and comes to define Marcuse's characteristic understanding of aesthetic education as the foundation of a critical theory.
The future of critical theorizing demands that we avoid the traditional political dangers of aestheticism and cultural conservatism that usually follow from the reduction of social theory to aesthetic theory. In order to liberate the criticalin critical theory, I believe we need to examine carefully the epistemological underpinnings of Marcuse's intellectual position. To do so we must come to understand more fully what I take to be the philosophical cornerstone of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism, namely its central analysis of alienation as reification. This involves a particular theorization of the concept of reification, as involving a faulty projection of reality that is caused by an intellectual deficiency which may be remediated only through the deconstructive and reconstructive power of a philosophical critique grounded in the aesthetic imagination. To Marcuse, reification as Verdinglichung is held to be responsible for the objective, material "semblance" (RR, 281) adhering to the social arrangements of human civilization.
Although the text of Reason and Revolution was initially published in English, Marcuse inserts the German word, Verdinglichung, into the statement cited above. In several other places Marcuse also ascribes Verdinglichung to Marx. It is improbable that Marx ever employed the term Verdinglichung, however. Marcuse nowhere cites a text from Marx with regard to the use of this concept, and other published scholarship on this issue is inadequate, even contradictory. (3) For my part, diligent comparative readings of the German-language texts of both Marx's essay "On Alienated Labor" and his subsection of Capitalon "The Secret of the Fetish Character of Commodities" disclose no instance of Marx's use of the term Verdinglichung.
Certainly, if Verdinglichungrepresented merely a terminological change with reference to a concept of alienation whose content remained the same, this shift would not be a matter of much analytical concern. This alteration is, however, by no means an inconsequential semantic variation of the original notion of reification as fetishization as this appears in Marx's writings (to which I shall refer below). Marcuse's shift is a philosophically, socially, and politically substantive shift. On the basis of the writings of Lukacs and Heidegger, he ultimately allows the economic phenomena of commodity fetishism and the dynamics of capital accumulation to recede into the deep background of his analysis. Instead, he conceives of alienation and reification almost exclusively as a sclerosis of thought and action, as a subordination of philosophical method to mechanistic and objectivistic principles. By the time of his final book, Marcuse claims (echoing Horkheimer and Adorno's statement in Dialectic of Enlightenment): "'All reification is a forgetting,' Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance" (AD, 73). Art is thought to preserve a liberating memory that the social and cultural worlds are not the inevitable products of nature, nor are they fixed or static. Social forces and social structure become secondary factors derived from the tentative, creative, and productive ideational acts of human objectification. Because reification is said to occur when this is forgotten, alienation takes on connotations of amnesis.
Marx to the contrary has no quarrel with the independent objectivity of social forces and social structure, nor with the existence of production goods as things. Rather his economic and philosophical criticism is aimed at the indiscriminate capitalist reduction of even the most intimate interpersonal relationships into alienating, market modes. Das Kapitalshows that private accumulation is enhanced when exchange relationships multiply and predominate in society. Social relationships oriented toward the non-commercial fulfillment of human needs are thus simply abandoned or they are coerced into inverted and exploitable social phenomena, subject to capitalism's conventions of commodity exchange. Alienation occurs because genuinely social attitudes and interests in people and toward people get driven out by business relationships. Exchange in the capitalist market is thought to evoke: ". . .sachliche Verh. ltnisse der Personen und gesellschaftliche Verh. ltnisse der Sachen" (4) (matter-of-fact and impersonal attitudes towards persons, but social concern for mere matters of business). The essential activity of labor, involuntarily transformed into work for wages under capitalist conditions, is restricted and distorted into an item for sale, barter, or exchange. "Free" in fetishized legalistic terms, labor is in fact controlled and oppressed through the capitalistic accumulation process.
For Marx, production goods become inappropriately de-materialized and idealized when they are elevated through a system of exchange transactions into objects of worship because they bring the blessings of accumulation to the owners of capital, above and beyond the good's worth in terms of societal use value. Obviously, Marx wants to overcome this fetish or idolization and restore the "human dimension" to the reified, structured social practices and ideologies that serve to replicate the social order and heighten the accumulation of capital. To do this a de-mystifying philosophical and social analysis is required, not aesthetic reminiscence. Marx certainly did not dispute the objective character of social relationships and their reality independent of the perceiving subject in this critique of the commodity fetish. Rather he criticized the ultimate rationale and justice of those specific sets of objective economic, social, and cultural interactions, which, as structured sets of human relations, were maintained in order to pursue profit under capitalism. Marx protested not against any general philosophical treatment of human beings as things, but rather against the reduction of humanity to a certain kind of thing, namely a commodity, whose social function is disclosed only through a dialectical and materialist philosophy. Likewise, there was for Marx no question that social relationships are always dynamic, material, and objective: his point was that these need not continue forever to reproduce the commodity form. Marcuse, however, criticizes the objectivity of economic relations rather than their subjugation to the commodity form. Marcuse's version of critical theory rejects a reification or fetishism of objectivity, science, facts and things, in a manner far beyond Marx's discussion in Capital of the fetishism of commodities. Marcuse has largely deflected the philosophical focus from Marx's original target, i.e., the commodification and commercialization of social life and culture under capitalism, and re-directed it toward a critique of the inauthentic "thing-character" of objects and social relationships, as such, and the supposedly "reified" nature of their scientific study.
The treatment of reification as Verdinglichung is the pivotal theoretical revision Marcuse utilizes to recast the formerly scientific (in the Hegelian and Marxist sense) connection of Reason to Revolution, and to subjectify it. Where Hegel and Marx emphasize the role of science, dialectically conceived, Marcuse increasingly looks to an ontology of art located in the subjective but universally human condition. The Frankfurt School substituted this ontological aesthetic, developed upon the basis of classical German idealism following Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Heidegger, for the progress-oriented philosophy of history of Hegel and Marx, and called it critical theory. In accordance with a prominent motif in this tradition, Marcuse holds that education through art provides the best impetus to philosophical and political education and to the re-humanization of philosophy itself. As ingenious and thought-provoking as this theory is, it nonetheless illegitimately reduces social and educational philosophy to aesthetic philosophy. Marcuse's theory of art-against-alienation converts abruptly into a theory of art-as-alienation. Thus it oscillates in a fashion that can furnish no ground for the supersession of alienation. He postpones an end to the alienation of the artist and intellectual "until the millennium which will never be" (CR, 103). The very permanence of this alienation makes his account anti-dialectical in the Hegelian and Marxist sense.
Two paradigms for theories of art and alienation emerge from my discussion, each with distinctive criteria for critical insight. The ontological/hermeneutic paradigm utilized by Marcuse is subjectively self-contained and considers meaning in self-referential (i.e. human) terms. That is, in terms of the internal turmoil and distress supposedly inherent in the depth dimension of the human condition (with Eros and Thanatos as the core sensual forces). This conflict is theorized as revealed, enclosed, and preserved by the aesthetic form, and its truth is untethered to societal and historical particulars. The limits of such a position are noted by feminist literary critic, Aeron Haynie, who has written, ". . . it is important not to posit an essential, pre-existing sexuality-as-truth . . ." (5) Following Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and Gayatri Spivak, she contends that an adequate interpretation of such art requires a recontextualizing of a work's supposedly inherent meaning in terms of the impact of its historical and political embeddedness. In my view, the historical materialist paradigm gains greater explanatory power and retains a malleability and freedom from apriori categorization because it remains externally referential. Because it continually implicates art and knowledge in a structural and historical analysis of social life, it possesses a capacity to construct and engage that context. It can also raise the problems and prospects of intervention against the material structure of oppression in ways the ontological/hermeneutical approach never has.
In conclusion, I want to ask by what criteria can we measure the advance of educational philosophy? Hegel's classic treatment in the Phenomenology of the consciousness of those who serve and the consciousness of those who are served discloses something of immense importance here for critical pedagogy. For Hegel, only the oppressed have the power to recognize the dialectic of interdependence that binds the "autonomous" subjectivity of the master to the subjugated condition of the servant. A serving consciousness becomes aware, through labor, that those served are dependent on it and that the master is not absolutely independent or free. The liberation of consciousness for both the master and servant requires this socialization, not subjectivization, of consciousness. Through struggle, Hegel indicates that the polarities of master and servant may be obviated and canceled, liberated and restructured, with an emergent awareness of self not as individual but as zoon politikon. This is the dis-alienating educational process that emancipates, empowers, and humanizes.
What have been called the civilizing forces of our age, the organized popular struggles against racism, sexism, poverty, war, and imperialism, have educated this nation about oppression, power, and empowerment. The professoriate, as such, certainly did not lead in this educational effort, although many individual college teachers played important roles. Part of the dilemma of education today requires the transformation of the frayed academic credo of liberation through the arts into a more philosophically advanced form of educational theory. Human intelligence is emergent from material, historical, and cultural (aesthetic and ethical) sources. At the center of this inherently political process is debate and struggle around the key problems of labor, oppression, and democracy. Yet critical theory often equates praxis with philosophical and literary criticism and the development of an aesthetic taste for cosmic ironies. Operating fully with in the conventional division of mental from physical labor and the relations of power which these divisions represent in monopoly capitalist society, critical theory is largely divested of a dimension of defiance and the power of transformation.
I would like to rephrase the Nietzschean epigram at the top of this essay, in terms of the Hegelian insights discussed above. If the truth is ugly, we have political education and revolutionary praxis that we may not perish of the truth. Alienated labor's political self-education to critical consciousness and collective moral action humanizes and sustains our lives. Dialectic must be liberated from a restriction solely to the aesthetic form. Our natural and social materiality must be liberated from the philosophy of mere sensuousness. Truth needs liberation from both empiricism and de-materialization.
The advancement of educational philosophy involves the articulation of our real prospects for solving our basic problems of economics and power as well as those of classroom pedagogy and art. I believe that there is a kind of education that can help the individual overcome a sense of powerlessness in the face of global and local structures of alienation. In my estimation this is found in the rational kernel of the p. dagogia perennis: a world-historical, international, and multicultural perspective that examines the emergence of various standards of ethical criticism, logical criticism, social criticism, etc. as a foundation for critical thinking and emancipatory civic action. Plato asked to what extent we were enlightened or unenlightened about our being. The Greeks acknowledged that this was a public and not merely a private concern, and that societal support was the precondition for the classical flowering of philosophy and art. In our age, humanity may come into possession of itself only by struggling to learn in spite of institutions of domination. By coming to understand the history of competing warrants for knowledge claims, moral judgments, and political goals, we, who begin life oppressed and alienated, equip ourselves with a comparative and critical view of the multi-dimensional experience of being human and being oppressed. In theorizing the negation of the negation of our alienated labor, we find the criterion of our emancipation.
What makes theory critical? In 1929 Herbert Marcuse was a graduate student in a seminar of Martin Heidegger's called "Introduction to Academic Study." Marcuse took notes almost verbatim of Heidegger's discussion of Plato's myth of the cave: "Today we do not even know what we are to be liberated from. Yet it is exactly this knowledge that is the condition of every genuine emancipation." (6) I argue that critical knowledge is knowledge that enables the social negation of the social negation of human life's core activities, the most central of which is creative labor. Any refusal to engage in just this sort of critique taking refuge instead in the philosophical distance found in art or glorious academic alienation is precisely what genuine critical thinking must refuse to do. Thisis the sense in which critical theorizing becomes the source of a social intelligence that inspires the ingenuity and the action required to advance politically toward the non-alienated character, conscience, and culture which is humanity's birthright.
(1) The current form of this essay owes much to the thoughtful commentary of Morteza Ardebili, Stephen Spartan, Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Fred Whitehead, and Roena L. Haynie. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference (University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1996) and published in the Researcher(Journal of the Northern Rocky Mountain Educational Research Association), Vol. 11, No. 2, December 1996, pp 40-50. An expanded version is incorporated within my forthcoming Art, Alienation and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000).
(2) Allan Bloom, for example, seeks to "rescue" university programs in the humanities from the perils of political protest and value relativism in The Closing of the American Mind. While higher education in the humanities is generally thought of as pursuing universally human aims and goals, Bloom is unwilling to admit that a cultural politics of class, a cultural politics of race, and a cultural politics of gender have historically set very definite constraints upon the actualization of the humane concerns of a liberal arts education. Bloom attributes a decline of the humanities and U.S. culture in general to the supposedly inane popularization of German philosophy in the United States today, especially the ideas of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and also Marcuse. These philosophers are regarded as nihilistic and demoralizing in part because they urge U.S. students to question nationalist commitments. Bloom asserts that we have imported ". . . a clothing of German fabrication for our souls, which . . . cast doubt upon the Americanization of the world on which we had embarked . . ." (p. 152). In a typically superficial remark he dismisses Marcuse saying he "began in Germany in the twenties by being something of a serious Hegel scholar. . . [who] . . . ended up here writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest . . ." (p. 226). Marcuse (in some ways very much like Bloom) valued high art and the humanities precisely because they teach the sublimation of the powerful urge for pleasure which in other contexts threatens destruction.
(3) P. Berger and S. Pullberg, in their "The Concept of Reification," New Left Review, No. 35, 1966, pp. 56-71, attribute "reification" and Verdinglichung to Marx. Paul Piccone and Alexander Delfini concur that Marx also used the term Verdinglichung and ascribe the use of this term to also to Husserl in their "Herbert Marcuse's Heideggerian Marxism," Telos, No. 6, Fall 1970. Other scholars claim, with greater warrant in my estimation, that Verdinglichungis a term introduced not by Marx but by Lukacs. See for example, Andrew Feenberg, "Reification and the Antinomies of Socialist Thought," Telos, No. 10, Winter 1971. Also Joachim Israel, Alienation From Marx to Modern Sociology(Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971).
On the centrality of Verdinglichungin critical theory see also: Christoph Demmerling writes in Sprache und Verdinglichung(Fft: Suhrkamp, 1994) p. 10: "The critique of Verdinglichung, the core of the social theory that derived from Marx, is still a fundamental element of the critical theory of society despite the discussion in sociology of the end of the industrial labor and despite the 'linguistic turn' in social theory." Wolfgang Filbert's Gesellschaftliches Wertsystem und personale Identit. t: Die Verdinglichung des Menschen(Fft: Haag + Herchen Verlag, 1986) sees Verdinglichungas indicating the consumption patterns that define personal identity. He uses it as a synonym for alienation as Entfremdung. See also: Alfred Schaefer, Aufkl. rung und VerdinglichungReflexionen zum historisch-systematischen Problemgehalt der Bildungstheorie(Fft: Athen. um, 1988); Jurgen Habermas, "Von Lukacs zu Adorno: Rationalisierung als Verdinglichung," in Theorie des kommunikativen HandelnsBand I (Fft: Suhrkamp, 1981).
(4) Karl Marx, Das Kapital(Stuttgart: Alfred Kroener Verlag, 1965) p. 52.
(5) Aeron Haynie, Imperialism and the Construction of Femininity in Mid-Victorian Fiction(Gainesville: University of Florida, Ph.D. dissertation, 1994).
(6) Martin Heidegger in Marcuse's notes to seminar, "Heidegger, Einfuhrung in das akademische Studium. Sommer 1929" Herbert Marcuse Archiv of the Stadt- und Universit. tsbibliothek, Frankfurt, Catalog # 0013.01, p. 6.
1941 RR Reason and Revolution, Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Boston:Beacon, 1960).
1972 CR Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon, 1972).
1978 AD The Aesthetic Dimension, Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston: Beacon, 1978).