sabato 15 aprile 2017

The Legacy of Marcuse’s ‘One-Dimensional Man’

by Federico Sollazzo (

Here below, the long versione Abstract of the talk of Federico Sollazzo, The Legacy of Marcuse’s ‘One-Dimensional Man’: From a Pre- to a Post-Technological Culture and Society, provided at the 10th International Critical Theory Conference of Rome, by the John Felice Rome Center of Loyola University Chicago, in 2017.

The main construens inheritance of One-Dimensional Man is to leave open the chance for a radical change in the possible continuation of our civilization towards a two-dimensional society, and this may be possible thanks to the level of development reached by current technology. Indeed, there is already a two-dimensional society in our past that Marcuse defines as led by the pre-technological culture. This seems to be a paradox and a contradiction: how to realize a two-dimensional society through and thanks to advanced technology, if the only example we have of such two-dimensionality is given by the pre-technological culture?
One-Dimensional Man is the work through which Marcuse carries on the critique of Western society, already begun with Eros and Civilization but now stressing new topics in such a way that a possible subtitle for the book could be: technology and civilization. A book that does not absolutely define a hopeless landscape. To settle this issue it should already be sufficient to remember the information given to the reader: the book «will vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society» [H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of the Advanced Industrial Society, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964, p. xlv]. Or, in other words, «rather than conceptualizing contemporary societies as closed monoliths of domination, they should be analyzed as system of contradictions, tensions, and conflicts which oscillate from stasis to change, from oppression and domination to struggle and resistance, and from stability and containment to conflict and crisis» [D. Kellner, Introduction to the Second Edition, in H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, cit., p. xxxiv].
On the contrary, the book is a harsh criticism of the industrial advanced society that not for this reason is depicted as a black monolith. In fact, inside it, fractures, possible breaking points are identified. «Philosophical project […] pertains to a specific stage and level of the societal development, and the critical philosophic concepts refer (no matter how indirectly!) to alternative possibilities of this development» [H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, cit., p. 222]. Some year after his famous book of 1964, in works such as An Essay on Liberation and The end of utopia, Marcuse tried to expand the liberating and alternative tendencies still present into the one-dimensional society, and even when, at the end of his life, he did not find social forces that seem able to apply for them, as in The Aesthetic Dimension, he never negated that, in spite of the absence of a social subject that may realize them, those tendencies are still present. To dwell these tendencies, trying to widen them, is precisely the purpose of that criticism. Exactly for this reason a very important pars construens, sometimes underestimated, is present in the book, where the author leaves open the chance for a radical change in the possible future development of our civilization, towards a two-dimensional society. The latter is finally possible thanks to the current level of intellectual and material development reached by the industrial advanced society. Consequently, technology plays a crucial role in this possibility. But there is already a two-dimensional society in our past that Marcuse defines as led by the pre-technological culture. It is followed by the technological culture, who Marcuse introduces in these terms: «our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living.» [Ibid., p. xl.]
This seems to be a paradox and a contradiction. The two pillars of any Critical Theory of society, as Marcuse characterized it, are «1. The judgment that human life is worth living (…) 2. The judgment that, in a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities.» [Ibid., p. xli.] Still, how to realize a two-dimensional society through and thanks to advanced technology, if the only example we have of this two-dimensionality is given by the pre-technological culture? Nevertheless, for the American/German philosopher a solution is definitely handy, handy because historical: «the “possibilities” must be within the reach of the respective society: they must be definable goals of practice.» [Ibid., p. xlii.] The solution lies in the fact that Marcuse points towards and opens to a new kind of two-dimensional society, in which, «by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence», [ibid., pp. xli-xlii] art and higher culture guarantee for it and technology permits its concrete realization.
This kind of social setting has its ground in a post-technological culture. Where post- does not mean a refusing and/or a deleting of technology as such, but its absorption in and subjection to another form of Reason (evidently, not instrumental).
This point definitely subtracts Marcuse to any kind of conservative reading, as if he had criticized technology as such instead of a certain kind of relation that individuals are accustomed to have with it, showing and confirming the continuous progressivism of his thought. Moreover, throughout this point it is also possible to overcome some Marxist-orthodox views, and to establish an interesting comparison with the Hegelian master-slave dialectic.

(«Memoria Condivisa», 17/04/2017)

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