Tag Archives: Herbert Marcuse

Maybe a New Individual

Art by Andy Goldsworthy

Art by Andy Goldsworthy

Paul Celan’s “Psalm”:

“Praised be you, noone.
Because of you we wish
to bloom.

Thought’s movement begins from the contradictions of the world,2 even from the non-identity of interior and exterior. There is something unsettling in the understanding that nothing will ensure that thought realizes itself. Any talk of the inevitability of a free society necessitates the progression of history, but history might have stopped short of its promise. The severe trauma of the 20th century attests to this. “Psalm” asks if there could be anything in an imposed nothingness so total that negation has no foothold. Maybe. Nietzsche wished to push ascetic ideals through itself: “a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!.”3 There seems to be a recurring motif in Celan’s poems of making unlikely things bloom. Nietzsche also uses a motif of a crown or flower when describing the culmination of ressentiment.

Consciousness would have to begin from its regressed state. It can’t afford to forget its losses. Acknowledging defeat can be a victory, and for us it is the only starting point. The fragments of the individual, which might first appear as memorials, point beyond themselves. An adequate approach would have to see them as critical.

1 Paul Celan, “Psalm,” in Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 78.
2 Herbert Marcuse, “A Note on Dialectic” (1960).
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 163.

Reason and Flesh in Bondage

Detail of Caravaggio's Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

Detail of Caravaggio’s Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

A few times in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out that reason is stupid, that it needs knowledge and the Understanding to guide it. Given reason’s penchant for veering wherever it wishes, Kant mentions different ways in which it must be restrained. This might not always be a bad thing: Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is an indictment of the ways in which reason can be used for the justification of awful things, for example: the reasoning behind genocides as a purification of the human race. In his lecture on knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno points out the strangely old-fashioned way that Kant restrains reason for the sake of morality, when Kant writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” I’ll quote Adorno’s lecture at length here:

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favor of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason […]. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther’s reference to ‘that whore, reason’, and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about ‘straying into intelligible worlds’. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. […] Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant’s view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are ‘houses of ill-repute’ (71-72).

The tradition of self-denial within western culture makes its appearance even in Critique of Pure Reason-a work of philosophy which attempts to cast off theological, ascetic strictures upon metaphysics. Adorno points out that Kant holds reason itself back in such a manner because its characteristic of being natural is grounds for claiming its unreliability to think beyond nature. Reason’s proximity to natural indulgences, according to Kant, hinders its abilities. Perhaps Kant is worried that reason, in the realm of the human body, might linger indefinitely on the island of lotus-eaters. And as Adorno points out, this restriction on reason mirrors those placed on human pleasure.

Nietzsche attempts to philosophically trace the sacred ascendency of asceticism. In doing so, he writes of slave morality, which is a deification of powerlessness, a lack of the sensual, and a lack of happiness. Thus, the religious act of giving up such things is based rather in an envy for a life full of them. Is it any wonder that the institutions most known for their devout abstention are also known for their obsession with all indulgences? Human bodies have long been relegated to a position inferior to the spirit in matters of knowledge and happiness. The painting above of Saint Peter’s crucifixion points to the total self-abnegation in death that then becomes deified in the tradition of martyrdom. The New Testament demands a kind of faith that makes the flesh worthless, for example when Jesus is contemplating his impending death in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

In his essay “On Hedonism,” Herbert Marcuse ponders this divide between idealistic and materialistic happiness. As is to be expected, he finds a more dialectical than polar answer to this conundrum: since happiness has been so strictly tied within subjectivity, it is currently difficult for such personal happiness to be the grounds on which citizenship in society can rest. The future, however, Marcuse hopes, is one in which personal happiness properly coincides with a happy society. As it stands today, it is sometimes too easy for one to fall into the offered pleasures of a culture that is complicit in the status-quo: “If happiness is no more than the immediate gratification of particular interests, then eudaemonism contains an irrational principle that keeps men within whatever forms of life are given. Human happiness should be something other than personal contentment. Its own title points beyond mere subjectivity” (120). Marcuse points out how the history of philosophy has its own ascetic strain in which happiness is not to be found in the subject’s material self. He notes that hedonism’s material happiness is also shared by the interests of critical theory:

It is against this internalization of happiness, which accepts as inevitable the anarchy and unfreedom of the external conditions of existence, that the hedonistic trends of philosophy have protested. By identifying happiness with pleasure, they were demanding that man’s sensual and sensuous potentialities and needs, too, should find satisfaction—that in them, too, man should enjoy his existence without sinning against his essence, without guilt and shame. In the principle of hedonism, in an abstract and undeveloped form, the demand for the freedom of the individual is extended into the realm of the material conditions of life. Insofar as the materialistic protest of hedonism preserves an otherwise proscribed element of human liberation, it is linked with the interest of critical theory (121).

In the goal of true human happiness, critical theory shares something with hedonism. It is due to our existence in a realm of pleasures and drives that Frankfurt School thinkers became interested in what psychoanalysis might be able to offer to the struggle for a happy, human future.