This is the fourth of a great series of lectures about modern life and the post modern condition by the great Rick Roderick the Bill Hicks of Philosophy. What is great about this series is that Rick delivers it such a great way that is very easy to understand, he makes difficult concepts clear and illustrates them in a interesting and engaging way. When I first found these lectures, I had to watch all of them one after another great and I urge you to do the same. Below the film is the transcript of the talk and a summary of the main points, but please watch the lectures first as they deliver a lot. Enjoy and raise a glass to Rick Roderick who unfortunately is no longer with us.
Summary of the lecture:
- Marcuse became a pop figure, the philosopher of the 60s. He expressed a key contradiction in modernity. Modernity is “enlightenment”, the end of myth and dogma, the power of reason; but it is also the rise of technology, capitalism, specialization, instrumental reason and the return of myth and dogma. The enlightenment built an intellect powerful enough to surrendering dogmatically before the powers of technology. This is the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” as analyzed by Herxheimer and Adorno and popularized by Marcuse.
- Instrumental rationality, information-based individual reason, leads to irrational outcomes. Individual monologic rationality is not rational in the totality of overall system. How did the force of the love of reason become itself unreasonable? The self cannot escape siege under the sway of instrumental reason alone, it drains the world of meaning and leads to the entwinement of myth and enlightenment. The film “Dr. Strangelove” is one long example of the contradictions outlined by Marcuse.
- Instrumental reason is the product of a one-dimensional society that produces one-dimensional human beings. Marcuse criticizes our society along at least two dimensions. First, the inner dimension: anxiety, despair, nausea and a massive industry in drugs to deal with these pathologies. A society of addicts. Second, the outer social world: alienation (separation from the subject and the object and the self in Marx’s sense); rationalization (bureaucracy and technical action in Weber’s sense). These produce a one-dimensional culture or banality which reduces human suffering and human desire to trivia and image.
- Such humans have by now become deeply skeptical and cynical about almost everything; in particular, the government and the culture industry. Beyond that, we are becoming skeptical about our history, our meaning, our purpose and the general fate of the species.
- Marcuse’s method of criticism is called internal critique which measures a society against its own historically accumulated concepts and ideals in order to point out the gap between the actual social practices and the principles.
- Marcuse also never lost faith in the human species to reconstruct itself, to begin anew. This hope of liberation transcended the field of economics and standard Marxism, as well as the achievements of the so-called free and democratic world of today. He also rested his hope in the possibility of that the self could be won against the odds. Today, unfortunately, this view will seem to many quaint.
Okay, this is the fourth lecture and we are going to pick things up a little bit here because we have a philosopher who I came in contact with in college through pamphlets and so this is someone I really enjoy, and I hope that you will get something out of this lecture. I am going to talk about Herbert Marcuse. Again, like Sartre, we are talking about an intellectual who becomes a pop cultural figure. I mean this is a very rare thing for a German philosopher to have their picture on the cover of Life magazine, but this happens with Herbert Marcuse in the sixties. The reason it does… and this time I will go into the theory. In the case of Sartre there are so many periods and stuff to follow out that it’s difficult, but with Marcuse there are a series of guiding themes that we can follow that I think will explain why Marcuse was the philosopherof the 1960′s, and I also want to explain more than that.
Marcuse also caught a certain contradiction – or crisis – that was always at the heart of modernity, if you like that phrase; of modern life, of the world after capitalism, of the world after rationalisation, you know, after bureaucratisation, after you have bureaucracies and rational decision procedures everywhere. Marcuse catches a certain contradiction here that I think is absolutely vital for us to understand.
If we go back to the traditional intellectual’s way of looking at it, the familiar phrase for the rise of the modern is the “enlightenment”, right? The enlightenment. And the enlightenment wants to free the human mind from superstition and from dogma, from the adherence to prejudice. This is the goal of the enlightenment. Beautifully stated by Kant in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”, when Kant says “Dare to use your own reason”, which already, you know, tells you that church fathers and things like that aren’t… don’t listen to them, dare to use your own reason. Have the audacity to reason for yourself.
Well, the enlightenment is fuelled by the rise of capitalism, it’s fuelled also by the rise and the incredible increase in the power of science and the ability of science to fuel technology, which has been my overall story I have been telling in all these lectures about The Self Under Siege, one of the things is we are buried under oceans of technologies and information systems and so on. Well the crisis that was always at the heart of the enlightenment if you go back and look at it, the crisis that was always working on it was something like this.
The attempt to demystify the world, the attempt to make the world, as it were, transparent to reason carried with it a strange dark side, always. And you may notice this when you watch television now. The more we, as it were, cleared the fields of the traditional religious views, the more that we became convinced that science – and one term for that Marcuse uses is “Instrumental reason”; reason used as an instrument for changing nature and human beings – the more that the enlightenment project progressed, it simply turned out not to be the case that we became less afraid in the face of the unknown. No, the unknown appeared more terrifying than ever, and it wasn’t the case that we became less dogmatic, as a matter of fact, the sciences have now branched out into so many areas that the only way anyone could believe in any of them is dogmatically since none of us could study them because we don’t have world enough or time.
So in a paradoxical way the enlightenment builds up a kind of intellect intelligent enough to see through mystification. That’s where I talked about Marx, Freud, and other figures. We build up an intellect hard enough, as it were, to see through these mystifications. But any intellect that powerful has a tendency to become totalitarian. This is the fundamental problem and nowhere would that be more evident than in the experience of the Germans who were, you know, great at their technology, the advance in science and so on, a world as instrumentally rational, you know, the famous joke that their trains run on time, but the flipside of enlightenment has been to, sort of, give up before the overpowering forces of technology in a more abject surrender than any that was ever called for in religion.
I mean, to just abjectly surrender before the powers of technology and given the current state of the powers of technology, they far surpass the characteristics that we associate with God. I mean, think of it in this simple way. In The Bible, in the book of Revelations, the apocalypse is a magnificent myth, but long ago it became what in our society? A reality! A technologically achievable reality. What had been a myth became a technologically achievable reality. We no longer had to conjure up ten headed beasts with three winged things to be afraid of, now we have systems, “rational” systems… rational in quotes… instrumentally rational.
That leads to a further paradox Marcuse locates in modern rationality, and that’s that instrumental rationality – and I want to associate it with, sort of, atomic bits of what I have been calling information as opposed to knowledge and instrumental singular decisions based upon them. You put these together and the outcome isn’t rational. The outcome is irrational, and dangerous. Let me give you an example. This is a very clear one.
Work is over, so it’s time to go home. It’s rational to want to go home after work. On my view of the good reading of Marxism, that’s the most rational thing we want all day; is to get away from work, its very rational. So, each individual actor’s decision to run out to their car and to get onto the freeway is rational. How about the outcome? Well the outcome is that everybody is sitting on the freeway breathing each other’s smoke and sitting on their butt. The outcome is irrational! The outcome of a whole… see, there was no reason. Because the enlightenment focused upon reason as individuated, individual, atomic, they didn’t see that the overall effects of reason working that way might themselves prove to be irrational.
Another example I will give you was the most recent stock market crash. The first stock market crash in the history of the world in which human beings didn’t make the foul ups. No, they had their… you can’t buy and sell on the stock exchange now because human beings don’t make the decisions fast enough; you have computers geared to make the rational decision programs work… the stock market crashed because the computers making individually rational decisions based on their little bit of information all working together crashed the market, and it would have crashed further except that we still are able to unplug them.
How much longer they will give us that privilege is part of the debate that we’ll engage in in the next part of the lectures. We still have the privilege of unplugging them, I think it’s a reasonable conjecture when the decision will work the other way; they will say to heck with you, we’ll unplug you. No, this is… this is why… I mean, you need an answer to this question: why did the enlightenment – which began with the love for something that I too love: human reason, and with its use to demystify things – how did it itself become a force of mystification?
Well, here is another way it did. I talked about how it debunked religion, but it engaged in overkill. By debunking religion in the way in which it did, it left us open and said science had nothing to do with whole fields of human experience which are now just given over to the wildest kind of insane theories. For example…
…if you look around now, there has never been a period in the history of the world where more people believed more completely nutty things. I mean, you know, watch A Current Affair. Elvis is still alive, UFO’s landed in Alabama… which always freaks me out.
I mean, how come if intelligent beings from another world are going to land somewhere, they don’t land in Chicago or Washington? [crowd laughter] But always in Alabama next to Uncle Billy, you know, who is sitting there going “Yeah I saw ‘em, right over there…” No! Land in damn Chicago if you are really a higher intelligence, land somewhere where somebody could take a picture of you or something… no, they are always in some backwater in Alabama or Mississippi. Anyway, UFO’s, poltergeists, see you couldn’t even list all the myths in a year: why?
Well because Science has marked off this terrain of reason, but outside it it pays no attention, it gives no guidance. Why are there things outside of instrumental reason at all? That’s the theme of the whole course. The Self Under Siege could never find meaning in this denuded form of thinking and living, where all that you are up to is making rational decisions one after another. That’s not a rich enough notion of experience or human life.
So what we have is on the one hand this sort of enlightenment instrumental reason that is, for sure, necessary for the sciences and so on, and on the other the ways in which people today try to get meaning are just incredibly bizarre… incredibly bizarre. I mean I’ll be moving shortly out to California where I think they have a new religion a week, a religion of the week club, drive through religions, they worship crystals, and I have talked about these other forms of pseudo-pagan body worship that America now engages in. You know, I mean, there was nothing… there was no concept that corresponds to the current concept of skinniness. I mean, I am a little fat and in this age that is a mortal sin… worse than mortal sin.
I mean skinniness is a religion, and we have got lots of mythic religions. The enlightenment, in other words, carried myth right along with it. It did not kill it, and it may be that this entwinement of enlightenment and mythology is what is most important to understand about the situation that we are in now. By that I mean in the late 20th Century, because now our technologies are themselves quasi mythological. Virtual reality, you know, you’ll have a movie about virtual reality, a guy gets in a suit and enters a world of neural networks and goes “I am God here” You know, this is pretty pagan stuff, except for one small thing. They can build these things. You know, otherwise we would be laughing about it, except they can build them.
And if you don’t believe that the first replicant or cyborg they build will be Elvis Presley you are already wrong. You know there will be a lot of money in rebuilding an Elvis. The first cyborg, I predict today on film, I will be captured for the ages… the first successful cyborg will be Elvis, because you just have him right back to king and probably there will be a national vote on whether we want to build a young or the old Elvis. [crowd laughter] I mean, so that’s the funny part. The unfunny part is that I do believe this entwinement of myth and reason is very real.
A film that’s a classic film that shows it is Dr Strangelove – ah, wonderful performance with Peter Sellers, great movie, if you haven’t seen it, please see it; directed by Stanley Kubrick – in which one of the most famous examples of rationality under this heading occurs, and that’s the arms race. Both sides keep building and building and building and building and building, and every move by one side calls forth a rational move by the other. The only problem is that if it continued the outcome would not have been rational, far from it… far from it. The outcome would not have been rational, and let me see if I can come up with one other example, because there are many, many of these… the economy is filled with them.
Let’s take trying to start a union. Let’s say you want a union, and American workers used to have them we had steadily raising wages; we had them for years and years and years. Since we haven’t had many unions we haven’t had that; there may be a connection there, I don’t know. But trying to start a union always suffers this problem, its you have to transcend instrumental reason to start a union, because it’s not rational for the first three people to join. You follow me? The first three, it’s not rational. You have to convince them there is a bigger rationality than theirs at stake. Something that transcends their selfhood, or you haven’t got any union. So if you don’t do that then the total outcome for all the workers is itself irrational. Namely, they are then forced to negotiate against a power greater than themselves at a massive disadvantage rather than to have equals negotiate these things.
Again this is a case where individuals’ instrumental reason left to its own produces irrational results. Now let me give you a classic one that even analytical philosophers know about, it’s in Game Theory. That’s something analytical philosophers love: game theory, it’s beautiful for them. It’s called the paradox of the dams. Here is the game.
You have two sheep herders and each of them have 100 sheep, and there are dams out there enough to feed 100 sheep. One sheep herder on this side of the game, and the other on this side and they get to start simultaneously. What is the maximally rational policy to follow? Well the maximally rational policy according to game theory is to drive your sheep onto the dams as fast as possible and have them start grazing. The trouble is that when you both do that you don’t lose 100 sheep, you lose 200. It’s a lose-lose game. That’s the problem. There you have got two mutually rational actors doing the mutually rational thing and the outcome is irrational.
Now I have gone through this at some length because this is going to be the heart of a criticism of modern technological society that Marcuse will raise. This is at the heart of his criticism. It is not his criticism that our society should just throw away instrumental reason; should just give up on thinking scientifically, that’s not it at all. It’s that if we don’t find a more balanced approach to ourselves, our world, other people, than instrumental rationality we are lost.
So let me run through just a little bit of his basic argument. If you wanted to break it down into so-called worlds, you would start this way. The inner world we have already discussed – that inner space of the self that Descartes thought that he knew all about – well we have already discussed the pathologies that arise in the inner self through its contact with what you might call modern life, and of course you do that when you study Marx, Freud and Nietzsche too, but you also do it – we also did it – earlier when we discussed Heidegger and Sartre. The inner world is noted – or at least it was, because as move on into the latter part of the 20th Century and into the 21st, it will be a real question about whether these inner structures are still intact, because they have both a positive and a negative valence; or significance.
The inner structures are anxiety, forlornness, nausea, dread, despair and anxiety and so on, those are inner structures. Now again we have a massive psychology industry to deal with this and then we of course have a society that is massively soaked in drugs. I mean, I don’t know how long American society would hold together if it were not a society of addicts. When you think of the leading drugs, and all of them are either like Valium or Prozac, you know, and then look at the drugs the kids take, look at ghetto drugs, look at the normal and official drugs which are very powerful like alcohol and cigarettes. The truth of the matter is Marx was wrong; religion is not the opium of the people.
Today, opium is the opium of the people. It works better. I mean opium works better than religion did. So that’s the inner world, and while it cannot be… none of these substances could cure the sicknesses of the self under siege in the late 20th Century, but we know what all these things can do, we know it from drinking. They can dull it; they can make you forget about it for a while. I mean, my mother was a beautician for years and years and still is, occasionally, and she drank a lot and it was not… she really wasn’t a drunk, its just that when you work 12 hours a day your inner self feels better numbed a bit. So these are not accidental… again, these are not personal or accidental things, they are quite widespread and social.
A writer about whom you might be interested – I think even though he is a little crazy, is a good novelist about the society being a society of addicts – is William Burroughs. Naked Lunch is a very strange book, but it has at least one thing going for it, and that’ that it shows us as a society of addicts which I think is not entirely unfair. I mean that’s to me what’s silly about the war on drugs.
The war on drugs must just be a war on a certain group of people doing it in the wrong way and with too many guns, because I sit there and look at the pharmacy and what’s going out of it, and I don’t know that many people that aren’t stoned on something… a handful. And what are they doing? Well they are out eating soy beans and jogging, which I consider even sicker. [crowd laughter] I mean if you are doing that you really need help. I mean that’s when you need to be put on drugs when you are out there, you know, jogging and eating soy beans you need the damn drugs. Okay that’s the inner world and I… for the existentialist this was what they focused on; were some of these inner world problems.
In the so-called social world, the problems are… and I will lay them out, and I will use some of the Marxist terms: alienation. Now, alienation in the Marxist sense is a kind of feeling of separation that is not just a mere mood; it’s a structure. It’s a separation from the object that you are producing, if it is an object, in our days, in our economy, it’s probably not an object. You are probably not doing a damn thing, so then you would be alienated from nothing. But let’s say you were producing a product, its separation from that product, lack of control over the process of making that product, lack of meaning in making it, and separation from other human beings that come along with that.
In short, what Marx means by alienation is the way the relationship between work and money separates human beings from each other, which to me is true, and Jesus knew it, and most people that know much about money know it. It’s true… it’s, you know, it doesn’t mean Communism is true, it just means that stuff about money is right.
Rationalisation: this is a big word I will try to demystify quickly for you… rationalisation. There is a great social theorist you could read here and that’s Max Weber; tells a lot about how the more complex governmental and private enterprises get, the more they need to bureaucratise and rationalise. But if you really wanted a sense for it I would tell you don’t read Max Weber, read Franz Kafka. Because when you read The Trial or The Castle, you get a real sense for what a bureaucracy feels like, for a world rationalised and the outcome being irrational.
See, no-one like bureaucracy either. I mean, you know how it feels. You go… you know, your income tax return didn’t come, so you have got to get one. They say “Well, go to room 107″ and you just left room 100 and you show up in room 107 and they say “Well you didn’t pick up form B in room 100, who did you talk to?” Well you don’t know them personally! You know, you are not asking them “Did you talk to me? Do you know who I am?” “Do you know who you talked to?” I mean you get that one the phone from IT… from you know, from the telephone company, they’ll go “What operator did you speak with?” and I go “Maam I am not personally acquainted with all of them, I don’t know who the hell I talked to” [crowd laughter] But no, this is the Kafka-esque quality of life as we emerge into the 21st Century.
You know, its an adventure to get your, you know, water hooked up is an adventure with madness like this, with utter madness and we are here, you know, very close to Washington DC where I don’t need to explain this at all. There are agencies over there where people who have just come in with the new administration haven’t found the bathroom key yet and are still holding their water. [crowd laughter] And it will be months before they find it. Ross Perot will be president before they find their bathrooms, and by then it will be too late… No, I am having fun. I am sorry; we shouldn’t have fun when we do this.
Anyway, there is rationalisation and I want you to know that both of these come along with modern life, and again, if you don’t like these arguments that I am drawing from Marcuse, look at Charlie Chaplin movies, look at Modern Times and notice how when it was made, people could still laugh at the way Chaplin’s motions matched the motions of the times, because people could remember they didn’t always move like that. Now we’ll rent Modern Times and we’ll look at it and go “Boy I wish we moved slow like that now”. I mean, now it looks real slow, he is just going with the machine; he is not having to run with all these flows of data or anything. He caught a break and didn’t know it.
Anyway, that’s rationalisation, and then the third – and this is sort of one of my own if you will forgive me – is what I’ll call banalization. And it’s always a danger when you do lectures like the ones I am doing now, and that’s to take these fundamentally important things like what does my life mean, and surely there must be a better way to organise the world than the way it is organised now, surely my life could have more meaning in a different situation. Maybe my life’s meaning might be to change it or whatever, but to take any one of these criticisms and treat them as banalities. This is the great – to me – ideological function of television and the movies. However extreme the situation, TV can find a way to turn it into a banality.
Let me give you an example. Ah, and it’s an old TV show, you won’t even have to go that far back: Laverne and Shirley. Laverne and Shirley work in Milwaukee in a beer factory. Now I would expect that to be a socialist realist film. No, no, it’s a sitcom. They have got two friends that are stupid and ugly. They dress funny. Their life is shit, if you will pardon the expression, and this is a comedy. Because all the troubles that such a life involve are just reduced to banality, just the common rubble of little one line joke, you follow me? It’s made banal by it. It’s banalised that way.
And I don’t want to jump on my good friend Oliver Stone but he makes a film that claims – and it may not be false to claim this – that John F Kennedy was killed in a coup d’état and our government has been run secretly ever since, and that may be true. But by the time we have had ten thousand books and four thousand movies, it’s become banal. We have rock groups called called “The Single Bullet Theory“, you know, just sort of making fun of how you can take matters of ultimate human importance and turn them into banality.
Now again, another example, and I don’t want to sound like Tipper Gore here, because I have got nothing against rock’n’roll music, of course not. I mean I am talking about a sixties writer and I am not against that, but I mean we have got all these lyrics about Satan well, you know, in heavy metal. Here we take the prince of darkness, I mean, the lord of evil – I love this guy, you know he’s the guy… the character from Paradise Lost, and now he is just more banal rubble for MTV; he is Ozzy Osbourne, and I am sorry but Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t make it as Satan. I cannot see one of those lead singers fighting the infinite being and creator of the world in dubious battle upon the plains of heaven. No, they have banalised that, you know, in other words there is no area of human experience that you couldn’t find where they haven’t reduced to some form of banality.
So that’s a third thing, and I think the banalisation is important, especially if you think of a couple of the cases I have used… the banalisation is important. Let me give you another one where I think it’s very important.
We have the problem of AIDS and changing sexual mores, so if my principle of banalisation is right, how would a rational apparatus react to that? By talking about it so much, about sex with your mum, with your dad, with your sisters, with your uncles, with your aunts… transsexuals, multisexuals, polysexuals, you will just talk about it until the whole subject will become banal. And what used to be fascinating desires, interesting, important, strange, hidden, prohibited parts of the psyche – what Freud called the unconscious – now those are just topics for Geraldo. I mean Geraldo could literally go through some of the sick cases Freud refused to write up and he would have his list of shows for a month.
So this is the process I call banalisation, and again, it’s not irrational. If you ask them “What are they doing?”, they are journalists shedding light on this problem, like Phil Donahue always says, you know “Society need to know” about these people who, you know, don’t know whether they are men or women and dress like gorillas and live in the Himalayas and come down once a year to have mating rituals with fur trees. I mean, they have got to know. This needs to be, you know, the light of enlightenment needs to be brought upon this problem. Well, banalisation, okay… those are sort of what I call anomalies of a certain social world.
The real question I am asking here is the one Marcuse asked in the sixties. How does a way of life break down? How does it break down. And Marcuse doesn’t give the pat Marxist answer, which means economically, and we ought to be glad that that pat Marxist answer is false because if a society could be driven to ruin by debt, you know, the way a lot of people said the Russians – the Soviet Union – fell because it was broke. Let’s hope that’s not true [laughs] since we are broke, let’s hope that’s false. As a generalisation, we had better hope it is false.
How do they break down? Well, here there is an analogy – for me – between the social and the self under siege, in many ways. In many ways, not in a few, and some of the symptoms we see around us that our own lives are breaking down and the lives of our society is a generalised cynicism and scepticism about everything. I don’t know how to characterise this situation, I find no parallel to it in human history. The scepticism and cynicism about everything is so general, and I think it’s partly due to this thing I call banalisation, and it’s partly due to the refusal and the fear of dealing with complexity. Much easier to be a cynic than to deal with complexity. Better to say everything is bullshit than to try to look into enough things to know where you are. Better to say everything is just… silly, or pointless, than to try to look into systems of this kind of complexity and into situations of the kind of complexity and ambiguity that we have to deal with now.
So anyway, that’s one way a society can break down. My own view of the United States government is that it has no legitimacy now in the classical political sense. That means it is not supported by a democratic majority of its people; it has no classic political legitimacy. I mean I take that to be an empirical fact. I bet you could probably do a factoid on CNN about it and banalise it. You’ll all go “Big deal, so what” Well so what? You don’t have a damn democracy, you have been lied to since you were born, well that’s no problem, we are used to it. That’s cynical reason at work, I mean; it’s just utterly the situation I think we are finding ourselves in. This scepticism includes scepticism concerning history… and this has not been a diatribe up here against reason, it’s been a diatribe against instrumental reason. Clearly the uses of a more comprehensive reason to try to figure out where we are would be important and could be used, but there is a general cynicism about it.
Marcuse is an old fashioned guy from the sixties, he still thinks – and I have no way to defend him now, too much has happened, too many things have gone wrong – but Marcuse still thinks that human beings as a species have historically accumulated potential. Over history they have accumulated a potential to live a life with a good deal more freedom, a good deal more happiness and solidarity than the one they live now. In fact Marcuse – unlike philosophers – is an unashamed advocate for this project. Philosophers don’t enjoy being advocates for any positions that matter, usually, but Marcuse is in this case and advocate for this position.
His style of criticism – and this is not a method, its one that I use myself frequently, it is more like a style of criticism, and here I have got to use a technical term – is immanent critique; internal critique, that word is immanent, “i”, with an “i”, immanent critique. What immanent critique does… I’ll give you an example, but what it does… it takes historically accumulated concepts and then measures a society against those concepts that have been developed within it, which is what I was just doing by saying these are the following maladies of our society and they shouldn’t be; we should be happier and so on. You know, this is a society with happiness, liberty and all that, or it is supposed to be.
So immanent critique takes the historically accumulated concepts, for example the Bill of Rights tradition and it confronts them with the historically existent reality, to measure the gap between the practice and the promise. You are all familiar with this style of critique because it’s, for example, Martin Luther King‘s paradigmatic style of critique, right? I mean, Martin Luther King didn’t say “Look, I am a Maoist, that’s why we should have civil rights” No, it wasn’t because he was a Maoist; it was because there was a gap between the practices we engages in and our promises.
Now, that’s the method within which Marcuse criticises capitalist society. Not with external norms drawn from some utopian situation, but by its own terms, with its own terms. I also think that’s not only a good strategy as a style of critique, but its utterly fair. I mean, in a way, it’s like demanding of yourself that you do what you say… which you want to demand at least of your friends… that they do most of the time what they say they’ll do. But it’s certainly a good demand to place upon, ah, your society, its leaders, and so on. The trouble is, just as I have stated before, we are blocked. We are blocked in a way by an unprecedented structure of what I have called here… sort of… cynical, sceptical reason. To me it’s historically unmatched. I have never read or heard of a period like this one.
Now, I have read about many historical periods. But not one in which you can talk to young people the way you can at the college level today, and find out that they believe… nothing. Want… nothing. Hope… nothing. Expect… nothing. Dream… nothing. Desire… nothing. Push ‘em far enough and they’ll say: “Yeah, I gotta get a job. Spent a lot of money at Duke.” That’s not what I am talking about here. They hope nothing. Expect nothing. Dream nothing. Desire nothing.
And it is a fair question to ask whether a society that produces this reaction in its young is worthy of existence at all. It really is. It’s worth asking that. Whether it’s worth being here at all. And my criticism of this society couldn’t get more bitter than it is in that case. It couldn’t possibly be. Remember, I am talking about the young I have encountered at Duke. These are privileged youth. At an elite southern school. Mostly white, mostly upper-middle to upper class. Now, imagine what the attitudes are like on the streets of DC if you are from another race or another social class. Is it surprising – at all surprising – that our cities resemble Beirut?
It’s hard to find… in other words our search here is for ourselves, under siege; trying to find who we are, under siege. But it’s kind of hard to do that when all our cities are beginning to look like Beirut, you know, that makes it harder. It gets in the way of the contemplation needed to find oneself when, you know, you are listening to the racket of drive-bys at night, it’s hard. I was reading the paper at U Penn at night, and the next day I was working on it, and I kept being interrupted by the noise of the drive-bys. We were only a few blocks from one of the war zones near the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Ben Franklin, Ivy League school… two blocks from Beirut. Not plausible but a real problem.
Well, we have outlived in the 20th Century the responses that Marcuse would have given to this. I still admire in his book, the argument concerning enlightenment. I still admire his vicious attack on eh, ah, bureaucracy, both here and in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And his attack on the world in which money comes before human beings. That to me is the, sort of, one line essence of the critique of Marx… I mean of Marxist critique… where money is placed ahead of human needs. Or just money is placed ahead of them.
Marcuse still tries to defend eh… as I say… freedom, happiness, creativity. He still believes in the truth. He still believes the human race has a happy destiny. I mean, I think that we have to look back at Marcuse, who at the time we looked at as a vicious radical, I think we have to look back at him as a kind of Norman Vincent Peale of the 60′s. I mean, Marcuse wasn’t radical at all by the standards of this world into which we have slipped by the late 20th century. No, he really does sound like Norman Vincent Peale at times. It’s… it’s eh, it’s almost eh… quaint, if it wasn’t so… horrifying because his theory and his views about the destiny of the human race on this plant, about whether we will ever learn to make sense or whether we will just keep making money and madness.
Its a real big question, he never was able to answer it, but one of the reasons I wanted to raise it right in the middle of the lectures is I didn’t want these lectures to turn into some kind of funky… kind of Tony Robbins course in self development. Like “now I know who I really am” kind of crap. Because when we are through, we won’t know! I don’t know. If I had known who I was, I probably wouldn’t have shown up. Now, I mean, you know this is not… I mean, it’s an important part. It’s not a cynical thing to say. But it’s an important part of finding out about the self in this part of history, that we don’t have all the answers, that we have not even formulated all the questions correctly.
In fact, Tony Robbins and people like him are part of the problem themselves. They are banalisation. I love it when I hear someone say: “I’ve listened to Tony’s tapes, and now… I used to be fat and unhappy, and now… I am skinny and happy” It just makes me want to cut someone up with a chainsaw. I mean, that’s ridiculous. I mean, you know, that’s not why humans think. They because they have to think. It’s a felt necessity. It’s the weight of the world, the complexity of it. And you can avoid it, I admit, with drugs. But at some point in your life, you are going to come across the need to think.
Marcuse comes from a period; and its back in style, back in fashion I have to admit that the 60s are back in style. They will probably be out of style by the time these tapes are out. But people are back, listening to Jimi Hendrix, wearing bell-bottoms and tie-dyes. I suppose you have noticed that. Of course this would have nothing to do with banalisation. Well, of course it would. But anything that is a threat to the system can be banalised.
I’ll give you two examples in the sphere of politics. The way they turned Jesse Jackson from a serious social actor, into sort of a banal caricature of himself in the media. They have banalised a real threat to the system, which was the Rainbow Coalition. A real threat – populist threat to the system – banalised into a joke.
It’s even sicker to realise this: that if, ah, something tragic happened to Jesse Jackson, there would be a picture of him up next to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in all of our schools, ten years from now. No-one doubts it, see. But now, while he is alive, he has to be banalised. This is… it’s obviously a form of control. This is social control I am talking about. It’s not a conspiracy, I mean; it’s just something that happens in the process of a society working out its own internal logics, in systems of incredible complexity.
Banalisation is a way to reduce complexity. It’s also a systematic way to be an idiot. And I have to say this, many of our complaints about the educational system fall under the critique of Marcuse as well. Where we produce student after student in this condition I have described. Which is not really despair, because it’s beneath that level. In other words they would have to be more excited to be in despair. They’d have to be like more thrilled to be forlorn. Like they’d have to be in love with something before they could have their heart broken, to make a more simple example out of it. No, it’s beneath that level. It’s frighteningly beneath it. It cannot be defended.
Herbert Marcuse, while he lived, made these arguments, and as I say, looking back on them from this point in history from this point in time it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for them. But I have a feeling they’ll come back, along with tie-dyes, Jimi Hendrix, and who knows. They may even have someone like me tour, and denounce the system as the warm up act for a rock and roll band. I mean, who the hell knows.
Thanks to Rick Roderick.org