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This is an essay I wrote for my Critical Theory class. We had to respond to a passage from Marcuse (below). It’s a bit hurried towards the end and a bit messy in its organisation, but I’m generally fairly happy with the argument I make here. The extract:

6. The Happy Consciousness – the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods – reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behaviour. It is new because it is rational to an unprecedented degree. It sustains a society which has reduced – and in its most advanced areas eliminated – the more primitive irrationality of the preceding stages, which prolongs and improves life more regularly than before. The war of annihilation has not yet occurred; the Nazi extermination camps have been abolished. The Happy Consciousness repels the connection. Torture has been reintroduced as a normal affair, but in a colonial war which takes place at the margins of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war. And this war, too, is at the margins – it ravages only the “underdeveloped” countries. Otherwise peace reigns. (p. 84)

Who is the Marcuse of One Dimensional Man? That is: who is the subject that can pose, as critique of society, the proposition that society now forecloses all possibility of radical critique? It is my contention that this Marcuse is impossible: that one cannot coherently speak from the subject-position Marcuse claims for himself; that the mere fact of posing such a critique performatively contradicts its substance. (Or, at the very least, to claim such a position contradicts the materialist presuppositions of Marcuse’s critique, and instead takes us into the magical-idealist realms of a Great Man theory of philosophical knowledge.) And yet, in a certain sense, leaving historical details aside, Marcuse’s account of the closure of discourse, of thought, seems strangely apposite to the post-industrial, post-crisis, neoliberal context in which we read him today. Today “[i]t’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (Fisher, 2009, p.1). Our time is characterised by the seeming impossibility of conceiving of an alternative to the world of capital and by “the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen” (Ibid., p.3) to which only a pathological consumerist indulgence – a “depressive hedonia” (Ibid., p.21) – appears as a possible response. Today, it would seem that the total identification of the real, the rational, the good and the possible identified by Marcuse (2002, pp.87-8) or, somewhat equivalently, the domination of the social by an unquestionable spectacular reality in which “[w]hat appears is good [and] what is good appears” (Debord, 2004, pp.9-10) is more complete than ever. If Marcuse is on unstable epistemological ground, it appears he is nonetheless capable of expressing a truth. We are left with the question: how can one lament the disappearance of a possibility of which one holds oneself to be incapable of conceiving? How can one desire an escape from that which sets the very limits of the desirable? This, I claim, is the paradox of Marcuse’s Happy Consciousness, which will serve as the central problematic of this essay. My contention is that Marcuse offers a unitary conception of the fetisished forms of late-capitalist social relations, which fails to grasp the fundamentally unstable and contradictory mode of existence of these forms, leaving Marcuse trapped in the pessimism of the world of surface appearances, and that the resolution of this paradox is to be found in the apprehension of the dual character of these fetish forms.

For Marcuse, the transition to the consumerist phase of capitalism has brought about a great enclosure of thought and a massive expansion and development of the forms of administration and control – what he calls the “administered society” (2002, p.243) – and with it, the recession of the possibility of the revolutionary transformation of society. Capital has achieved what he calls “the conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness” or “repressive desublimation” (Ibid., p.59), that is to say, capital has effectively abolished the ability of culture to express an authentic protest against or critique of existing society by “the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality.” (Ibid, p.60) Capital no longer operates primarily through repression, but rather has incorporated desire into the process of accumulation by offering the fulfillment of human needs that it simultaneously produces. (Ibid., p.78) As a result, culture is no longer capable of articulating a need that capital cannot meet, so even apparent rebellions are recuperated into the univocal valourisation (in both senses) of the existing society: “reality surpasses its culture. Man today can do more than the culture heros and half-gods; he has solved many insoluble problems.” (Ibid., p.60) The gap between cultural and social reality, which in previous stages of development was a source of antagonism, collapses to a single dimension, and in the process destroys the dimension of alienation in art. (Ibid., p.73) Language too is impoverished, robbed of its immanent spaces and tensions, and therefore left unable to differentiate between “reason and fact, truth and established truth, essence and existence, the thing and its function”. (Ibid., p.89) The result is “The Happy Consciousness — the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods” (Ibid, p.87) – a new conformist subjectivity that is unable to conceive of its own alienation. Put simply: the proletarian subject, seduced by material abundance, is now trapped in the recuperative circuit of her own desire, robbing her of the possibility of developing a critical political subjectivity.

As a hermeneutical point, it may be useful here to reflect on emphasis Marcuse places on vertical relations throughout his elucidation of this thesis. For Marcuse, it was precisely the transcendent elements in higher culture (Ibid., p.60) which in previous phases of development gave art its revolutionary significance. Moreover, critical theory too, for Marcuse, must aim at adopting a relation of transcendence vis a vis social reality, albeit of a “rigorously historical” rather than “metaphysical” character. (Ibid., pp.xli-ii) This, to me, is indicative of a continuity with classical Marxism in thinking about class consciousness – e.g. Lenin’s claim that the proletariat is on its own capable only of a trade union consciousness and requires the Party to bring it to a revolutionary consciousness (Lenin, 1902), Lukacs claim that the Party is required to disclose the “appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ to a particular class situation” to a proletariat trapped in the world of reification (Lukacs, 1972, p.51) – that is, the proletariat is constructed as an external object by the theorist (who is somehow able to stand above society and apprehend objectively its relations) and it is deduced, in one way or another that it is incapable of achieving the correct form of consciousness, which therefore requires correct class consciousness to drop as a blessing from above (albeit, in this case, it is the artist or philosopher rather than the Party which takes the role of transcendent agent). Marcuse fails to grasp that the revolutionary discovery of the Enlightenment was precisely that of the “plane of immanence”, which placed the question of the direction of human society squarely in the hands of the multitude, to which dominant classes opposed a transcendental apparatus of capture. (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.70-83) What would it mean for Marcuse’s critical theory to take seriously the revolutionary potential of immanence and to conceive of the political subjectivity of the multitude not in terms of a vertical relationship between theory and practice (or rather, theorists and practicers), but rhizomatically, that is, in terms of connective, communicative, and immanent relations between a non-ordered multiplicity of heterogeneous singularities that form a collective assemblage? (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, pp.5-8) We will return to this question.

Additionally, Marcuse inherits from Freud a problematically essentialist theory of desire which underpins his historical thesis. In his History of Sexuality: Volume 1, Foucault (1990) offers a devastating critique of the “repressive hypothesis”, which holds that previous historical periods were characterised by an overall repression of sexual desire, from which we are now beginning to emerge. Rather, Foucault demonstrates how sexuality has in different periods been actively produced through the incitement to discourse (from the confessional, to sexology, to psychoanalysis) and through the effects of disciplinary power which involved “refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification”. (p.11) If we admit this discovery, it renders impossible any distinction between one’s “true” desire and that which is constructed by consumer capitalism – desire can only be understood as a contingent social product of a particular historical conjuncture. “Need”, which has a somewhat ambiguous relation to desire in Marcuse, must also be understood as a properly historical product. The “manipulation of needs by vested interests” (Marcuse, 2002, p.5) is not a peculiar feature of late capitalism, but is in fact precisely what occurred in the “deterritorialization of the socius” that enabled the encounter of “decoded flows of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flows of labor in the form of the the ‘free worker’” which birthed the capitalist mode of production. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p.33). Simply: in order to “destroy the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle” (Fedirici, 2004, p.11), a process of violent dispossession was unleashed by the ruling class, producing particular relations of need (essentially, workers with no means of support other than to sell their labour) which produced the conditions for the ascendance of the bourgeois class and of the capitalist mode of production. The above problematises the historical rupture detected by Marcuse: if the relations of “need” and “desire” were always already contingent on the development of class struggle then this cannot be a new innovation of capitalist domination particular to late-capitalism. Since its inception, capital has manipulated need and desire to diffuse class struggle and to ensure the continuation of the accumulation of capital. If this is the case, to source the impetus for revolutionary struggle in the supposed “authenticity” of pre-social need is wholly ahistorical. The question then presents itself: whence the impetus for class struggle?

It is crucial to understand the fundamentally contradictory and unstable nature of capitalist social relations. What may appear as a unitary edifice of domination is founded on an ontological division which capital is necessarily unable to resolve. Capital is the product of the fracturing of the social flow of labour, which is necessarily also the fracturing of the subject (Holloway, 2010, pp.28-31), the becoming-alien of a portion of our subjectivity that becomes objectified as a commodity (it is of no significance here whether the commodity is a material or immaterial product of social production). The constituted forms of capitalist social relations, including fetishised forms of thought, therefore, are never merely established facts, but are dependent on the continuous reproduction of this division, the continued reiteration of a subjective violence. (Ibid., pp.88-91; Holloway, 2011) What Marcuse presents, therefore, is only one face of a duality: the apparatus of reterritorialisation that reincorporates our lines of flight into the logic of capitalism, but not the movements of deterritorialisation that challenge and disrupt the prevailing codes, which characterises the schizophrenic dynamic of struggle in capitalist society. (Guattari, 2009, p.52) It is hardly surprising that for Marcuse “[t]he critical theory of society… remains negative” (Marcuse, 2002, p.261) when it is predicated on a monist ontology that sees only the uninterrupted history of domination that progressively entraps the subject, but not the agency of the subject that pushes back against its cage – the occlusion of the “transcendental” representation of alienation in culture, but not the immanent division of the social and the subject itself that renders the spectacular “pseudo-justification for a counterfeit life” (Debord, 2004 ,p.23) always minimally unsatisfying. It is not the didactic pedagogy of art or philosophy that in the end pushes us into antagonistic relations to capital, but the frustration of our own potencies and desires which capital cannot avoid, which is then, perhaps, represented or communicated through art or philosophy.

Reading Marcuse in the light of the conditions of contemporary capitalism, it is clear that Marcuse’s pessimism suits the dominant affective composition of society, and the paradox of Marcuse’s critique is also that of much contemporary critical theory. In the age of real subsumption and the social factory we live in greater intimacy than ever with capital, and its destructive and constrictive impact on our consciousness is certainly similar to that described so vividly by Marcuse. But paradoxically, this situation also increases the potential for liberation (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.43-44), as the colonisation of social life means that resistances that were once marginal now strike at the omnipresent centre. (Ibid., p.26) “[I]f the capital relation is now reproduced everywhere, then capital is contested everywhere” albeit in “low intensity conflicts” rather than dramatic confrontations. (Free Association, 2001) In assessing Marcuse, then, one might say that Marcuse has only interpreted the conditions of late-capitalist ideology, but the point is to disrupt them.

Bibliography

Debord, G. (2004) The Society of the Spectacle. UK: Rebel Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus. US: University Of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Fedirici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. US: Autonomedia.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. UK: Zero Books.

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin.

Free Association (2001) ‘Anti-capitalist movements’. Available at: http://freelyassociating.org/anti-capitalist-movements/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Guattari, F. (2009) Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews, Lotringer, S. ed. US: Semiotext(e).

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. US: Harvard University Press.

Holloway, J. (2010) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2011) ‘Class and Classification’. Available at:

http://www.johnholloway.com.mx/2011/07/30/class-and-classification/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Lenin, V.I., (1902) What Is To Be Done. Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Marcuse, H. (2002) One Dimensional Man. US: Routledge.

Youth culture is constantly constructed as an object of contemplation and interpretation. There is a certain kind of journalist for whom youth culture provides a wellspring of material to be broken apart, reassembled, framed and offered up as a kind of diagnostic of the condition of society, always for a particular audience. This production of “knowledge” is always an exercise of power: youth are spoken about, interpreted, fretted over, represented, but rarely if ever included in the production of the discourse about them.

For the Right – the tabloids and the stuffier broadsheets – the archetypal narrative form is the moral panic. Youth appears always as the crisis of a liberal society gone too far: a destructive whirlwind of jouissance tearing apart all that remains orderly and good. Of course, the “youth media” – that is media produced by businesses and marketed at youth – is pretty much entirely a marketing apparatus, manipulating and producing youth cultures as revenue streams for various industries (music, fashion, etc.). In these cases, the operation of power is more or less transparent (at least, if viewed from sufficient distance).

But there is a certain type of left/liberal writing about youth culture – by trendy twenty-something journalists, for trendy twenty-somethings, both mutually invested in sustaining the delusion that they’re still part of the adolescent avant-garde – where the operations of power/knowledge are all the more insidious precisely because they represent themselves as sympathetic, and as occupying an “our man in the Orient” position simultaneously within and outside the culture they report on.*

* My own speaking-position on this subject is somewhat suspect also, as a 23-year-old who has never been in any way cool, and who mostly sits in his flat eating ready-meals and arguing about political theory on facebook.

A common feature of this kind of writing is a peculiar kind of historicism around the appearance of youth subcultures and countercultures. At every moment of history, Youth is expected to embody a spirit of rebellion against society, which I am calling the Punkgeist. The Punkgeist is the essence and historical mission of Youth: rebellion against the aesthetic/cultural establishment, the liberation of desire through the construction of a countercultural avante garde and new oppositional collective identities. Rock, punk, goth, rave, et al, are to be understood as particular manifestations of this eternal essence of Youth, which proceeds through a dialectical process: each generation produces its own countercultural forms, which over time are incorporated into the mainstream, becoming stale, clichéd, boring, repressive, only to be overturned by the aesthetic radicalism of the next generation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – Hegel reborn as a music journalist.

The puzzle then for those who assemble nostalgic misrepresentations of the youth movements of the past into a dialectic of history is why are the youth of today so docile, conservative, apolitical? Why are their trends not as cool and important as those that came before? This is the question that NekNominations (basically a viral drinking game) posed to one Vice writer, prompting him to write an article titled ‘NekNominations are what this generation has instead of punk or rave’.

The thesis put forward by the article is essentially this: the youth of today exist in a world where a technologically-enabled individuated eclecticism has replaced counterculture, and every rebellion is monetised and reincorporated into capitalism before it can even begin. But “there’s no way to monetise drinking a pint full of grasshoppers or getting your mates to pepper spray you in the face. They remain one of the last things in our society that are essentially unmarketable. Very few brands are going to encourage you to drink engine oil any time soon – they don’t want a shout out at your funeral, they want your money. NekNominate doesn’t, and it remains nihilistically enticing for that.”  The old is dying and the new cannot be born, so all that is left to teenagers is to drink, vomit and post the results on facebook.

I didn’t know quite what to make of the piece at first (hence why I’ve ended up writing a whole long thing about it). On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Capitalist Realismesque argument: culture is dead, authentic innovation and rebellion within art is now impossible, and all that remains is a depressive hedonism. (Although Adorno said much the same, and then the 60s happened.) But on the other hand, there’s something that feels really forced about the politicisation/intellectualisation of what seems to be a wholly apolitical and anti-intellectual gesture: the imposition of an interpretive framework that at the same moment patronises and gives far too much credit. “You might think you’re downing a pint of cider,” it seems to say, “but I know it’s really a desperate and nihilistic rebellion against postindustrial capitalism.” In any case, drinking games weren’t invented by teenagers in 2014, so I’m not sure why this one needs a special explanation, just because it happened virally on the Internet. (Seriously have none of the people writing the acres of columns on this topic ever necked a pint in their lives?)

Perhaps the problem is this: the Punkgeist doesn’t exist. Perhaps rebellion is not the telos of youth. Perhaps there was always far more involved in counterculture than just teenage hormones. Perhaps punk was not just a generation acting out because they were young, but a far more conscious and political project, and perhaps this generation hasn’t come up with the new punk because punk was a deliberate intervention in particular historical circumstances that no longer exist. In any case, the pop-Hegelianism of the common-currency Punkgeist explanation for countercultural movements has tended to strip away everything authentically dangerous about them, reframing them as purely aesthetic rebellions, and as merely epiphenomena of the maturation of a generation: something to talk about at dinner parties (or in newspaper columns) when you inevitably grow up and get a proper job.

And maybe NekNomination is just a drinking game, not the spirit of punk returning in pathological form.