Of all the first-generation Frankfurt School writers, Herbert Marcuse offered the kind of Critical Theory most concerned with revolution.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Marcuse generated condemnation from across the political spectrum. In his infamous memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. warned of college campuses becoming incubators for an evolving “assault on the enterprise system,” especially in the social sciences, with professors like “Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California San Diego,” exerting inordinate and unacceptable levels of influence. “There should,” thus, Powell explained, “be no hesitation to attack the Naders, the Marcuses, and others who openly seek destruction of the system. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.”
As shown in Paul Alexander Juutilainen’s documentary, Herbert’s Hippopotamus: A Story About Revolution in Paradise (1996), haters hanged a manikin representing Marcuse in effigy at San Diego city hall in 1969. Marcuse’s critique of the so-called free enterprise system as a system of un-freedom, excited students but irritated the establishment, inciting reaction.
Even those sharing a similar critique of capital have since criticized Marcuse. Sharon Smith rejected his downgrading of the conventional working class to nonrevolutionary status, citing evidence of myriad worker revolts during the period when Marcuse too readily dismissed the proletariat’s rebellious potential.
Nevertheless, Marcuse’s philosophy continues to offer something absolutely essential: a dialectical insight into essence and the possibilities of recovering our humanity through the aesthetic re-appropriation of technology. His foresight here is notable and ironic given his theoretical focus on transforming perception to make a different future.
Contra the caricatures of Marxists as grubby, mechanistic materialists, Marcuse’s Marxism underscores the dialectical relationship between subject and object, between ideas and practical activity. Marcuse’s use of the Marxian conception of “recollection” as the exercise of the human faculty for rediscovering distorted human and denied nature, refers to our capacity for imaginative projection beyond the established order. What he called “the idealistic core of dialectical materialism” recollects that which is not given in immediate experience under repressive conditions. Imagination, representing “the indissoluble tension between idea and reality,” recovers the fragments of our maimed human and natural material, just as our historical human being recollects images of a free, unalienated existence (existing now only in the form of being denied).
The imaginative capacity becomes essential for liberation, especially under the rule of instrumental-technological rationality. This rationality divorces values from the objective world. Rationally rendered mere subjective judgments, values lose value. Sanctioned to metaphysical domains of divine or natural law, their elevation above the material relegates them to the realm of the effectively unreal. As phenomena incapable of empirical verification, those values become simply “ideal,” so the principles they represent, espouse, or embody are not “invalidated” by the constant aggression against those values demanded by the reality we recreate. Instrumental approaches give rise to a reality with a seemingly “neutral” character, free from values or notions of essence, but in truth the supposed neutrality imbues a positive reaffirmation of the necessity of instrumental treatment of the natural world, human bodies included, for the sake of exchange value. Further, this rationality reinforces itself. Instrumental treatment of nature and the exploitative social relations undergirding that treatment and the supporting rationality militates against dialectical thought. As with commodity fetishism—the erasure of all the social labor that goes into producing commodities and is represented in the money form (since acquiring commodities on the market means we need not think about the surplus value extracted from workers that ensures profits and endless production)—instrumental-technical rationality elides history. Glossing over the genesis of objects and obscuring social relations erases the struggles from which they emerge and the contradictions embedded in them. It also naturalizes that which is, reifying present social arrangements as non-historical realities not subject to change: one-dimensionality.
Marcuse offered a Critical Theory for interrogating that one-dimensional thought. In addition to describing the power of imagination, he also elaborated the potential aesthetic power of art. Artistic images and words evoke “another reality,” “another order repelled by the existing one and yet alive in memory and anticipation, alive in what happens to men and women, and in their rebellion against it.” Humanity’s artistic creation represents an unreality. The unreal, illusory world depicted through art, otherwise inexpressible within the established universe of discourse, presents another dimension of and to sensuous perception. More than mere ideas abstracted from the world, art allows for a different dimensional experience, a taste or glimpse of that which is not yet but could perhaps be. The alienation of art from society, its intrinsic dissociation with the wrong world of established reality, also relates art to society by virtue of making transparent the antagonisms in society or the shortcomings of the given order vis-à-vis the beautiful communicated via art. Invalidating ideology by preserving class content, art also becomes “the receptacle of universal truth beyond the particular class content.” Media, as a technological art form and vehicle for the ineffable, communicates a sensuous presence of that which is desired but systematically denied.
But media technology, in the main, historically has served and continues to function as an alienated apparatus of control. To reproduce itself, capital must realize value on the market. With technology increasing productive capacity exponentially, new needs and desires must be manufactured and cultivated through advertising media. This is especially true given the role of technological innovation in rendering many jobs obsolete, generating unemployment, and putting downward pressure on wages. As a result, luxury consumption among a small affluent section of the population becomes incredibly important for value realization and capital’s reproduction. Similarly, capital cannot tolerate too much authentically free time where no production or consumption occurs, which means technology must be utilized for creation of profit-boosting spectacles for consumption by consumers themselves, as evidenced by social media users actively offering up intimate personal details on online platforms today. A Facebook post, retweet, or Instagram “selfie” recovers a false sense of agency—that feeling of having some say over one’s own life is surely sorely desired in a society where people feel alienated from each other and themselves, disenfranchised by concentrated political-economic power and the technology that sustains it. With their own labor power turned over and against them, coerced into working for the symbolic representation of their own social wealth, any activity offering a sense of empowerment, like the participatory features of new media technologies, is readily embraced even as it reinforces alienation. Further, as David Harvey argues, even supposedly labor-saving devices contribute to the complexities of life that prevent people from enjoying truly free, self-determined being in time.
As Marcuse argued long ago, seemingly value-neutral positivist assumptions also separate ethical questions from questions regarding the role of technology in society. Prospects for using new technology to improve the human condition are forced to fit within the framework of digital capitalism, which strives to homogenize initiatives and subordinate them to the logic of exchange with profit motives as the modus operandi. Not only does purportedly value-free positivism promote an ideology of objectivity that relegates values to the subjective realm where they can be dismissed as irrelevant, thereby ironically augmenting the dominance of certain values, like those of exchange. It also masks how new technology—including and especially new digital media—are inscribed with a history of power relations and embedded within persistent matrices of power. Marcuse’s philosophy is one of unmasking relations of domination operating through our communications to reveal how neither technology nor humanity are reducible to the one-dimensionality capital wants to keep both arrested within. Part of that revealing foregrounds both the social relations reproducing capital and our technology as terrains of struggle, subject to change. Marcuse’s approach goes beyond critique to suggest the possibilities of producing and perceiving a different aesthetic through remediation, a reworking of the technical apparatus to imbue it with an artistic language for going against and beyond the world it reaffirmed before.
However, Marcuse acknowledged subversive art is unlikely to catalyze opposition to the alienation experienced every day as a result of capital’s control. But his philosophical inquiry intimates aesthetic possibilities latent in technological power, partly manifest in common artistic expressions “against its plastic de-erotization, of beauty as negation of the commodity world and of the performances, attitudes, looks, gestures, required by it.” As Andrew Feenberg, one of Marcuse’s former students, interpreted his teacher’s work, the emphasis on the “power of the imagination” fills the gaps in theory with a new approach to technology and agency. “The organized work of the imagination is aesthetic activity, based on aesthetic experience,” Feenberg explained, “and it is therefore to aesthetics that Marcuse turns in his later work for this constructive dimension of his theory.” The technological form of experience requires supplanting by a new form—or aesthetic forms, augmented by technology. Realizing dreams of a beautiful world “means finding the aesthetic forms which can communicate the possibilities of a liberating transformation of the technical and natural environment,” even as the art remains apart from revolutionary practice. As a new mode of consciousness and a new sensibility, though, the technological aesthetic amounts to a sensuous, material experience of the dialectic. What was previously only identified as potentiality could be recognized (and then realized) now as a new sensation through heightened sensitivity to possibility. In essence, Marcuse foretold not just an experiential dialectic, but a dialectic of feeling differently to do differently. In dialectical fashion, an aesthetic sensibility is an exigency to overcome the rule of technology even as it must be nurtured by and remains immanently bound to technological change. Expounding upon Marcuse’s insights, Feenberg offered “an authentic human existence is to be achieved at the level of society as a whole through the aestheticization of technology, that is, through its transformation into an instrument for realizing the highest possibilities of human beings and things.”
The emancipatory potential of the technological aesthetic rests with its ability to remediate the ancient Greek conception of technê, the model of revealing the essence of a thing prior to its production or actualization. Contra instrumental rationality and against the ideology of neutrality portraying the world as-is without inherent potentialities, Marcuse’s theoretical application of technê, following his former teacher Martin Heidegger (with insights from dialecticians like Hegel and Marx), advanced this modality of revealing. Through aestheticized technology, however, the revelation entailed more than mere acknowledging of the history embedded in a thing or simply identification of its potentials. A change in aesthetic apperception engenders a change in aesthetic human faculties capable, in theory, of sensing what life-affirming realities lie latent but remain either unrealized or blunted by prevailing arrangements. That which routinely militates against authentic human flourishing comes to be seen as capable of militantly unleashing that flourishing.
“For Marcuse,” Feenberg explained, “authenticity is not the return of the individual to himself from out of alienation in the crowd, but reflects the social character of existence, the fact that the world is a shared creation.” Liberation, then, implies an altogether revitalized individuality and sociality, as well as an individuality initially capable of seeing the tightly tethered but highly alienated sociality underlying the existing order where symbols of collective wealth act against collectivity. Authenticity in the sense here entails remediation of our sociality in such a way that promotes individual flourishing, instead of suffocating and obscuring the always already present social bonds. Marcuse suggested solidarity among human beings, so thoroughly “repressed in line with the requirements of class society,” appears to be “a precondition for liberation.” But a precondition for such solidarity lies in transforming our “instinctual foundation” for forming solidarious bonds. Our aggressive, libidinal, and erotic attachment to the commodity form stems from a deep introjection of instrumental rationality and market morality. That is, the prerogatives of the system reach “into the depth of man’s instinctual structure,” sinking down “into the ‘biological’ dimension,” modifying “organic behavior.” Marcuse uses the term “biological” somewhat idiosyncratically, different from the meaning it has in the hard sciences. In his usage it refers to the process wherein “inclinations, behavior patterns, and aspirations become vital needs which, if not satisfied, would cause dysfunction of the organism.” When a given morality becomes a normalized behavior, it goes even beyond introjection to operate “as a norm of ‘organic’ behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and ‘ignores’ and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society.” Consciousness, ideology, and behavioral patterns become a part of human “nature,” and the implication, as I understand it, is that an “authentic” revolt requires a “biological” change. Presciently, Marcuse offered evidence decades ago for the necessity of this instinctual transformation, given the change in the dimension of human nature fashioned by capital’s technical appendage back in the 1960s. It appears even more necessary now within the techno-media milieu of today’s digital capitalist culture. “The needs for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a ‘biological’ need in the sense just defined.” The cyber-sphere now materializes the market for us in the form of portable media devices. Those devices are also commodities acquired on the market and produced, in the main, under atrocious labor conditions. We carry them with us everywhere as though they were part of ourselves—totalizing integration. New electronic media functions like Marshall McLuhan claimed, as an extension of our central nervous system. Counter-revolution, as Marcuse forecast, became “anchored in the instinctual structure,” inextricable from human nature and being.
Recovering human nature and being authentic requires altering our technology so that it promotes a new aesthetic faculty among us in accord with an anti-instrumental technê. A paradox, however: the new aesthetic sensibility is needed in order to alter the technology that is supposed to bring about this newfound sensibility. This is not surprising. Similar paradoxes arise in struggles over applications of technology. Organizers use social media to mobilize across geographical space because it is instantaneous and conducive to decentralized participation, but the use of social media on some level still legitimates part of the order many are organizing against. In another context, the use of horizontality, or cultivating social relations without hierarchical structures of power-over others, as witnessed in the face-to-face direct democratic assemblies of Occupy Wall Street and other movements, reintroduced sociality and recovered Eros to prefigure the more just society many would like to see. But the horizontality of such prefigurative politics remains circumscribed by a society producing people with different amounts of social, cultural, and actual economic capital. Insidiously concealed power asymmetries (class antagonisms) inevitably come with people into assemblies, militating against authentic horizontal relations.
Even prior to recent dialectics of freedom and domination, the anti-authoritarian ethos of the 1960s that Marcuse’s theory captured so eloquently became co-opted by the system, recast as self-interested individualism and freedom of choice on the market. New technology and even new social theories that emerged reflected and reinforced that atomization and fragmentation while obliterating historical continuities in the name of liberation. Emphasizing identity politics at the expense of challenging the commodification of everything, submitting to the collapse of all identity into the hegemony of exchange value; fetishizing “the possibilities of the here and now” in ways that erase the genesis of the oppressive institutions that so obviously pervade the present; and reducing people along with the struggles they embody to “rhizomatic nature” containing “no essential essence”—ergo, possessing no essential potentials to be realized nor any universal humanity to be universally alienated—all these theoretical positions illustrate ideological reflections of the new modes of the negated life we live. The attempt to transcend dialectics similarly reveals its folly. Again, the human capacity to ascertain the historical emergence of what is, identify it as subject to change, and recollect a mutilated humanity to project beyond to the different kind of being that could be is dismissed as an irrelevant relic of a bygone era. Insidious effects ensue and the celebrated end of history is cemented as dystopic reality. That is the only reality imaginable within the realm of the new “one-dimensional,” a-dialectical thought. The conceptual concision imposed by new media platforms further structure this narrowed dimensionality. If an idea cannot be Tweeted in 140 or fewer characters, or made into emotionally potent oversimplified meme form today, it is like it never existed. Collaborative and participatory potential embedded in present-day network technologies are surreptitiously wielded as deceptive regimes of governance, inducing us all to become more complicit in our subordination to external controls.
Nevertheless, people find ways to relate to one another through struggles that do not comport with the domination so dominant today. Acknowledging ubiquitous surveillance and pitfalls of “clicktivism,” many still use the Internet to challenge repressive controls through anonymous DDoS attacks on corporations or through instantaneous insurrectionary updates on Twitter. New media spheres offer means for sharing and co-creating artistic visions of those other unrealities denied at present yet alive in the increasingly connected radical collective imaginary. Remediating Marcuse means apprehending our condition dialectically, understanding that neither humanity nor human imagination can be contained within a one-dimensional world where domination must inevitably reassert itself. Humanity remains always historical, irreducible to only the static present, and imbued as Marcuse would have it with an essential sensitivity toward already existing aesthetics, technical and otherwise, cultivating care and tenderness. Marcuse’s philosophy prompts us to recollect those relations that are mediated by technology and the world, capable of transforming both.
James K. Anderson is a writer, social theorist, doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and a precariously employed adjunct professor who taught classes in the Communication department at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet, and Counterpunch.
 Cited in “Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” PBS Supreme Court History: Law, Power, and Personality (August 23, 1971).
 “Marcuse’s observation [about US working class conformity with the system] was proven wrong by the end of the 1960s by a series of working-class revolts and the rise of a working-class majority opposed to the war in Vietnam. The number of unauthorized strikes across all industries doubled between 1960 and 1969, from 1,000 to 2,000. The year 1970 witnessed a veritable strike wave—including a 67-day strike against General Motors—which was part of a rise in class struggle that subsided only in 1974,” see: Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 10–11.
 Herbert Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt (Boston, Beacon Press), 69.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt, 70.
 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 147–148.
 Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 156.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and revolt, 92.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and revolt, 97.
 David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press), 278–279.
 Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, 278.
 Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt, 103.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt, 121.
 Andrew Feenberg, Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History (New York: Routledge, 2005), 82.
 Feenberg, Heidegger and Marcuse, 82.
 Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt, 111.
 Feenberg, Heidegger and Marcuse, xiii.
 Feenberg, Heidegger and Marcuse, 85.
 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 10–11.
 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 10.
 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 11.
 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 11.
 Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 11.
 Khasnabish, “A Tear in the Fabric of the Present,” 20.
 Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man.
 For a brief recap of one revolutionist’s resistance online and off, see: Kit O’Connell, Anonymous Hacktivist Jeremy Hammond Promotes Prison Abolition Behind Bars, Truthout (May 31, 2015). For a theoretical overview of alternative media as contestation, see: Leah H. Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media (Malden, MA: Polity Press); John Downing, Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements (Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001). For an insurrectionist take on why Google sucks, as well as an introduction to revolutionary cyber-security culture, see: The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e)), 2015).
Image of Herbert Marcuse—copyright holder: Marcuse family, represented by Harold Marcuse.