Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Herbert Marcuse

310634“When philosophy conceives the essence of being as Logos, it is already the Logos of domination–commanding, mastering, directing reason, to which man and nature are to be subjected” (125)

“In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of phantasy” (149)

“The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play” (171)

For a thorough and efficient review of Marcuse’s arguments, see 121-26 and 241-43. Marcuse bases his arguments on Freud’s fundamental observation that a certain amount of repression of instincts is necessary to adapt human subjects to reality, and that this adaptation creates increasingly complicated civilizations while keeping destructive instincts in check. Marcuse then adds that technology is now at a point where the subject suffers ‘surplus repression,’ above and beyond what is strictly needed to maintain civilization. Freed by technology from the necessity of adapting ourselves to reality, being able to shape nature in whatever way we want (36, 92, 152, 156, 194), not having to devote ourselves to alienating work (“it is the purpose and not the content which marks an activity as play or work” (215)), we should be able to enter into a new civilization founded on the free play of the instincts and the eroticization of the whole life rather than on repression. What would a sensuous, non-repressive Reason (110) look like? Perhaps art tells us, particularly when it is not relegated to being “just art,” but when it holds out the possibility of a fully eroticized work-for-itself that refuses all external instrumentality. Now, Marcuse recognized, in his 1966 introduction, that his historical narrative (101) needs some tweaking; 40 years on, we can see that it needs much more.

That said, I love his argument that a return to past repressed pleasures will be the grounds for creating a new future: “the images of phantasy could refer to the unconquered future of mankind rather than to its (badly) conquered past” (147); see also the revolutionary potential of primary narcissism (169) and the pastoral (“The terrible sentence which states that only the lost paradises are the true ones judges and at the same time rescues the temps perdu” (233, see also 49 on “perversions,” and 18-19 on the truth value of memory)). On all this, I think of Benjamin’s popular “Angel of History” (e.g., 90-91) ;

Having encountered, and had my thought upended by, Marcuse’s essay “The Ideology of Death” (here) I want to particularly emphasize this:

The silent ‘professional agreement’ with the fact of death and disease is perhaps one of the most widespread expressions of the death instinct–or rather, of its social usefulness. In a repressive civilization, death itself becomes an instrument of repression. Whether death is feared as a constant threat, or glorified as supreme sacrifice, or accepted as fate, the education for consent to death introduces an element of surrender into life from the beginning–surrender and submission. It stifles ‘utopian’ efforts. The powers that be have a deep affinity to death; death is a token of unfreedom, of defeat. Theology and philosophy today compete with each other in celebrating death as an existential category: perverting a biological fact into an ontological essence, they bestow transcendental blessing on the guilt of mankind which they help to perpetuate–they betray the promise of utopia. (236, see also 121)

Eros and Civilization should also be praised for its assault on the so-called ‘dignity of work,’ as Marcuse rightly observes that this productivity is used against (rather than to liberate) workers: “this pleasure [of pride in a job well done:] is extraneous (anticipation of reward), or it is the satisfaction (itself a token of repression) of being well occupied, in the right place, of contributing one’s part to the functioning of the apparatus” (220-21). As he argues [summarizing Schiller’s revolutionary rereading of Kant:], “Man is free only where he is free from constraint, external and internal, physical or moral–when he is constrained neither by law nor by need. But such constraint is the reality: man is free when ‘the reality loses its seriousness’ and when its necessity ‘becomes light'” (187). It is therefore not adaptation but de-adaptation that the revolutionary Freudian should seek. Adaptations to any one of the various prêt-a-porter personalities available in the current system of citizenship and work should hardly be the proper end of advocates for dignity! Thus Marcuse distinguishes between therapeutic and theoretical methods: therapy resigns its patients to the current order, whereas if Marcuse’s theory were used in a therapeutic context it would de-adapt them from the current regime of reason, so creating saints or martyrs (247).

Bonus: occasional jabs at Jung and his reactionary “obscurantist pseudo-mythology” (239, also: 148 & 192).