Preparing for Utopia

In a dialog entitled “Something’s Missing,” Ernst Bloch and Theodore Adorno agree that there shall be no positive conception or vision of utopia. Adorno even links this interdiction to the biblical one against graven images. Utopian thinking then consists in the “determinate negation” of the structures in society as they currently exist (much like Marx’s project was a criticism of capitalism before it was a positive vision for communism). Utopian thinking ought to emphasize the “u-“: that utopia is “n0-place” and that revolutionary consciousness derives its most urgent creations from this “no.” In a similar vein, Fredric Jameson speaks of “The Future as Disruption“: the difficulty of translating Utopias into a viable political-practical alternatives to the current system forces us to “concentrate on the break itself: a meditation on the impossible, the unrealizable in its own right”:

The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break.

A somewhat different picture emerges in the work of Herbert Marcuse: for him, utopia is no longer just “no place,” but rather “that which is blocked from coming about by the power of established societies.” With the advances in science, technology, and food production, utopia — the diminution of basic suffering to the lowest possible levels — is potentially within our grasp. However, the very same forces that make utopia possible now inoculate the masses from the very desire for it, through the mechanisms of mass media and generalized complacency. Such are the symptoms of the affluent society: merchandise, consumerism, satisfaction, competition, complacency, distraction, and profit; which are supported by mostly invisible exploitation in the productive arena: exploitation of resources (including people), mental repression and aggressiveness, and the whole catalog of brutalities waged against marginal populations in the name of corporate capital. Thus, although technology and transport could minimize competition for resources, make basic needs available for all, and free up time for humans to determine themselves according to their own needs (and not those of production, exploitation, etc.), what should be our noblest desires are sabotaged through various mechanisms of mental and cultural control. We unwittingly defend a system that consolidates wealth and power in the hands of the few, and we find our very being defined by the ideals of affluence which sustain the same system that oppresses us all.

Of course, it is easy enough to recognize this, while the question of application, change, and reversal remains tough to handle, both in theory and practice. Marcuse says that the revolutionary strategies employed in the 19th and 20th century — namely, the model of a revolutionary avant-garde seizing power through collective force — can no longer apply. Why? Because the working class is no longer impoverished to the point of heated revolt. Quite to the contrary, the working class, or the middle class, has become the agent for conservativism and stability of the exploitative system (through ideals of consumption, values of work ethic, etc.). Here, we must remember that Marcuse is writing in 1968, when the working class opposed the student revolts in France– and so effectively defended the technocrats and overlords who should have been their common enemy. Of course, Marcuse still affirms that struggles driven by the “underclasses” will continue to be primary in the ghettos and impoverished areas of the world, and that these class driven struggles will always underpin the biggest changes in society (for example, the Arab Spring); but at the same time, he comes to the conclusion that there is a new work of preparation that must be undertaken.

These preparations imply the task of producing new cultural subjects, fashioned from within the affluent capitalist society as its internal disintegration (one could link this disintegration to the idea of introducing entropy into the system, or of making room for everything ― thus of writing, spacing, life, difference in general). This means the preparation of a “new historical Subject of change” whose arena of praxis is driven away from picket lines and the streets, toward the slower work of creating new desires for freedom, of tapping into a new sensibilities of human solidarity, and of imagining new aesthetic forms ― sensible forms that present us with an image of freedom, and so develop within us an awareness of our desire to be free. The vital need for us, then, is to emphasize the need for a transformation of consciousness that is freed from “conservative interests and aspirations” of the prevailing society and its norms. It means nothing less than the preparatory, prerevolutionary work of radical enlightenment.


Preparatory Moves

The goal of this essay is to explore the prerogatives that this preparatory work implies for Marcuse. Despite his optimism that certain technological advancements make utopia actually possible for us, and that it simply remains for us to make the potential actual, we can still see in his own words and in the form of his thinking the interdiction mentioned at the beginning: the impossibility of giving a positive conception to utopia or to any tangible alternative to the given Establishment. His effort, for all its positivity, remains “negative,” even if this negativity has a positivity of its own. Culled from Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation, here is a tentative catalog of moves which ought to guide any preparatory attempt at utopian thinking:

  • Qualitative transformation
  • Exiting the sphere of divided labor
  • Transcending the shame of the past
  • Transcending affluent satisfaction 
  • Refusal of the Establishment
  • Destruction of language
  • Revolution in perception itself
  • Limits on Freedom
  • The priority of Aesthetic Form
  • Form as Subject
  • Limits on Socio-Political Participation

Qualitative transformation — The means and the end of utopian speculation. It corresponds to the step-by-step, initial leaps out of society as it is, and to the total shift from a quantitative-capitalistic society to a qualitatively different, socialist one — changes also appear to characterize capitalism as a political and economic process as a whole. The ground level operation for this transformation is the active production of new needs and modes of production that radically differ from those associated with capitalist society: the production of new possibilities. (See posts on Peter Osborne & Time and Lefevre on Socialist Action.) Marcuse’s thesis is that affluent society constantly reinforces needs that pattern the behavior of the populace and alienate them from what they really want.  Capitalist society stifles and adjusts our faculties of imagination and consciousness to serve its own exploitative and quantitative purposes. It represses their real urge to break free, exploiting our capacity to adapt to rough circumstances. People become competitive, stylish, or “in the know” because they have been inculcated with these values, such that they become second nature. To undo this knot is tricky, but qualitative transformation requires it: the creation of new needs that are radically heterogeneous with respect to the old system. Paramount in this creation is to reinvigorate, or simply invent for the first time, a longing for free and open spaces.

Exiting the sphere of divided labor — Marcuse tries to think of a necessity that is wedded to freedom such that freedom reveals itself as the true necessity; such that the “freely necessary” begins to assert a causal force in reality unlike any ever seen before — as if one form of freedom were the contagion for the next. Here, free development of my faculties necessarily takes place outside of the division of labor, the sphere of “socially necessary labor,” where I’m forced to be “divided from myself” and sell myself for a wage. To drive possibilities for freedom into conscious awareness (through aesthetic or utopian Forms, as we’ll see) prepares the imaginative soil for larger revolutions. In this new vision of human activity, “creation” and “productivity” would be directly linked to the shared production of images of freedom. In this utopia, freedom and necessity coincide like self-determination and solidarity: “Socialist solidarity is autonomy.” (Note: this is not unlike Wilde’s idea that Individualism could only truly thrive in man’s soul under socialism.)

Transcending the shame of the past — Qualitative transformation implies the rejection of aggressive and brutal practices associated with exploitative societies of the past, both by acknowledging the injustices committed in history and by not allowing these evils to recommence today. In distancing ourselves from our forefather’s practices, we will also distance ourselves from their guilt, thus delivering man from ressentiment and moralizing him through a common sense or sensibility of “biological” solidarity with all other men– a solidarity characterized by the rejection of exploitation, repression, and aggressiveness. Perhaps the limit to the expiation of collective guilt might also show us the limits of this transformation (cf. Benjamin’s Theses on History). Marcuse’s study is oriented toward social expiation, but I would suggest that this transcending of the shame of the past is also required on the personal level: solidarity with a shared sensibility and shared rationality that takes me beyond myself has to be supported by my own transcendence of my past (my reluctance, shame, fear, etc.). But despite not emphasizing it, this “short-circuit” between the universal and the singular is implied– especially since none of this gets off the ground without it.

Transcending affluent satisfaction — Qualitative transformation of perception implies the overcoming of the Pleasure principle altogether, where happiness is thought to be something consumed and not produced (as it must be, if it is really to be happiness); and where there is pleasure in gratification and satisfaction (relaxation of desire), instead of in the endless circling-around-the-impossible (intensification of desire). The former would denote the delusions of contentment in the affluent society, whereas the latter would denote the creation aesthetic or utopian Forms: a new kind of productivity that would never stop transforming the one who produces them (or who at least perceives herself to be at the center of a production coming from within and without).

Refusal of the Establishment — We must reject and disengage ourselves from the rigged game at all costs and on every level; we must deny our reliance on the “Good Will in the Establishment”; we must free words from their subjugation to advertisements, abstract theories, and political propaganda; we must abolish our very existence as consumers and combat the regime of “profitable exchange”; we must transvalue all values (Nietzsche is cited at least twice). Again, this drives right to the heart of our own being and daily practice: “people cannot reject the system of domination without rejecting themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs and values.” This not only means shrugging off the “moral values” condoned by the system of domination, but also its pretension to being totally functional and operational, to being useful and helpful: the myth that the Establishment is good for us, which is only a screen against our fear of social chaos and disorder.

Destruction of Language — Implicit with this qualitative transformation would be a “rupture with the vocabulary of domination.” This includes most notably the vocabulary that, for example, makes heroism out of American tactical strikes and turns violent outbursts of the Iraqi oppressed into “acts of terror.” This is the vocabulary that condones violence against the Enemy while blinding itself to the injustice it distributes, while proclaiming loudly the corruption of anyone who would challenge the prevailing social systems (like OWS). More generally, it includes the destruction of all “instrumentalist language.” Paradoxically, revolutionary language “cannot be… an instrument of revolution.” Marcuse links this to the dada-surrealist project to be as non-conformist as possible, to the point of “a methodical reversal of meaning.” This theme of a non-instrumental, useless, worthless language is a language that cannot enter the chains of exchange as they are. It cannot be commodified: it has attained an absolute value by being intentionally valueless. It can only head toward free and open spaces. (Note: See Jean Baudrillard’s Impossible Exchange, but more importantly, Georges Bataille’s insistence on the need for an insubordinate language that would throw off all hints of servitude in The Absence of Myth. See also Silence-writing. This need manifests itself at every level of Bataille’s discourse, which objects constantly to its own signification and meaning. Incidentally, this need to cast off all forms of servitude and to reject all instrumentalist language is the motivation behind my polemic against theories, their productivity or “use,” systematic closures, the invention of concepts, and definitions in general.)

Revolution in perception itself — Only on the level of perception can the “continuum of repression and domination” be broken once and for all. The cultivation of new possibilities and the emphasis on solidarity freed from aggressiveness can only lead to this revolution in perception itself. This revolution (transformation, intensification) of perception is meant to dissolve the old structures and to make room for the new. But whatever this new “is,” again, we cannot say. Why? Because they very process of the transformation of perception is what gives rise the transformed reality (u-topia). The utopian act cannot be dissociated from the utopian outcome, no more than the aesthetic perception can be dissociated from the aesthetic Form. But right away we must emphasize that this “outcome,” this “form” is never given. “Reality has to be discovered and projected.” (Note: we could link this to Bloch’s vision of utopia as an “Ontology of the Not-Yet” and the initial idea that “Something’s Missing” — which cannot be overcome by any social outcome or any final closure of Form.)

Limits on Freedom — This is the paradoxical freedom of the senses to share in the imaginative production of new Forms of freedom. But the key word here is share: the exercise of my freedom of imagination is limited, and can only produce new free images when my exercise is invested with this sharing and its truth (which is freedom). (Note: This sharing is what Marcuse is getting at when he discusses the “biological” solidarity of man with man as a species; but we should extend this beyond the human to all things and existents. I share this freedom of imagination with mountains as much as with humans– or at least, everything is infinitely valuable in itself before it’s related to anything else, and so implies the same element of solidarity-in-diversity that Marcuse applies to socialistic autonomy.) Marcuse references Kant to explain the limitations on freedom, which happens on the side of sensibility and reason: (a) my sense contents and their forms are necessarily shared with me by others (on the edge of skin where things touch me and I touch things); and (b) reason itself is the articulation-in-common through concepts, words, ideas, etc. (which is corrupted by the instrumental, competitive, and utilitarian uses to which it is put in the affluent society). The senses provide the (shared) raw material and reason the (shared) order; this takes place within us. The imagination is the “sensuous power” of harmony and unity between these two seemingly heterogeneous levels. (Note: in connection with the limitations on freedom, we should cite Levinas, for whom the “Other-in-the-Same” not only calls my arbitrary freedom into question, but upon welcoming the Other invests its with its true purpose.)

The priority of Aesthetic Form — In all this, Marcuse is led to the position that the “ascent of Form,” of the aesthetic Form alone reaches utopian heights. In the art form, consciousness goes as far as it can possibly go toward the negation of the given reality: “Their time is not the present; they preserve their truth in their hope, in their refusal of the actual.” As with utopia, the object of art is never “given” beforehand: it must be found out. And it is impossible, immeasurable. This “not-given” is always found out in the process of perception, which is an (unending) end-in-itself. As the end-in-itself of art, the process of transforming-perception becomes actual insofar as the process itself becomes an object. And this object is hardly an object: it is the aesthetic form, an aesthetic process in consciousness capable of transcending the actual. The art object, no more than the utopian society, has never become itself, for its attitude toward all of given reality requires that it always be becoming, actively transforming our perceptual apparatus. This is why the transcendence of the art product can be total, for it must develop a language that is totally subtracted from ordinary language and experience. Its meaning transcends its content (or its objectness) through the Form (which in the end is just a shattered and displaced object), since it cannot simply be engaged at the level of contents (this would miss the whole point), but on the level of movement, transformation, and perception: form.

Form as Subject — Art as an end-in-itself, as total transformation of the contents of consciousness through a wholesale revamping of the form of consciousness (pushing it to the very limits of unreality, we should add; but also of sharedness), is a perfect analog for the revolutionary conception of a self-determining humanity. The form of both the artwork and the new revolutionary Subject breaks with the familiarity of known practices (including revolutionary ones) and with the “automatism” of immediate perception: it prolongs and extends the duration of this perception, thus making possible something that was previously impossible in terms of the former system. In this way it attains the utopian point — a point that nevertheless trembles between the former system and the unprecedented new form. This takes place in/on/as the very border between reality and unreality: “The aesthetic necessity of art supersedes the terrible necessity of reality” and has to “abandon the direct appeal, the raw immediacy of [its] presentations.” The link between the unreal self and the unreal utopian landscape or language asserts itself here most forcefully as both urgent and infinite. More complicated yet is the fact that production is well underway. See, for example, Laura Riding’s Anarchism Is Not Enough, which emphasizes that the rightness of an individual is not in his “reality” (as both nature and history would argue), but in his unreality, his nothing, his impossibility.

Limits on Socio-Political Participation — Marcuse adds that all of this involves a “refusal to mature” and “perform efficiently” in society. This involves the strategies of laziness at work, of indifference to social trends and mores, and a refusal to work in support of the oppressive divisions of labor to the greatest extent possible. It involves satire and irony, laughter and ridicule against the Establishment and its minions. It takes the stance that “the general will is always wrong” insofar as the status quo is something produced by the Establishment. Change is thus always opposed to the “rationalizations of the status quo,” which generally only “reproduce the repressive system.” Therefore, while democratic society is preferred to other forms of repressive society, it is constantly opposed. The radical is forced into anarchic and non-political modes of action and rebellion, forced to be “illegal” in the eyes of Law and Order; but this is because the existing society has invalidated itself. Only the individual, illegal and unsanctioned, can make the judgment call — and the criteria for judgment is lacking, but common: we are never prepared for it. “In radical political practice, the end belongs to a world different from and contrary to the established universe of discourse and behavior.” (Note: Lytotard, “Sensus communis, le sujet à l’ètat naissant.”)


Producing Potential in Freedom

By this point, it’s clear that Marcuse comes awfully close to refusing any positive conception of utopia, since it’s obliged to rely on the coordinates of thought and language at its given historical moment. (In another sense, this is the impotence of the dead to speak, of silence to say anything that can be heard by anyone.) By defining utopia as the thing the Establishment represses, Marcuse deepens the necessity of its wholesale negation while trying to maintain its scientific and technological features. . He even goes so far as to say that the external revolution can only take place if the “internal structure and cohesion of the capitalist system begin[s] to disintegrate” — and this disintegration begins with the radical effort of the individual to undermine the Establishment and the repressive ways of society at any and all levels (including the satirical and apolitical). “Negative thinking” is practiced to prevent the bad infinity of society and the perpetuation of its system of definitions and oppositions; and to uncover its inconsistencies, its inaccuracies, and its difference. Interestingly, this rapport to society is not unlike the rapport to the aesthetic or Utopian form: we can never rest content that the object has “become”; we can only pursue the becoming-object of a transformation in perception, imagination, solidarity, freedom, aesthetics…

Marcuse is right to point out that we cannot reject everything that has come along with the affluent society. It’s developments make utopia much more possible in potentia, such that we cannot reject outright any positive speculation. We should advocate and create models for the collective ownership of resources already available. We should advocate that all resources be mobilized for the abolition of poverty (which even Oscar Wilde knew was the goal of socialism). Our society has led us to these possibilities: now it’s time to end its self-propelling productivity for profit’s sake, and reinvent it for our own sake. And nevertheless, affluent society is based on an aggressiveness that will not take kindly to this sharing of resources overnight. As an apparatus in consciousness, it represses the poverty it requires to survive: thus the need to abolish the known forms of consciousness. Which means that, today, we ought to start practicing new forms of creating and sharing new forms of language and consciousness that cannot be swallowed, commodified, sold and consumed complacently. Practicing our new found capacity to give shape to the refusal to take shape for good, thus giving shape to Jameson’s “break” or Nancy’s “suspension,” giving form to the tension and pleasure of the infinite, impossible, u-topic not-yet.

In the end, it is as if the need to be free was the very thing that needed to be produced. Marcuse repeats across his work: “the joy of freedom and the need to be free must precede liberation.” This invention takes place “subjectively” from the get-go. It means the production of a new historical Subject: new aesthetic Forms. It means the abolition of the attitude of private property and the economic-social apparatus that supports it, a practice of collectivization and sharing in work and deed, a constant struggle toward transformed perception, new rationalities, and singular forms of aesthetics (as sensibilities and as arts), all undertaken with one basic question in mind: “what are we going to do now and for whom?” It is an injunction to rethink humanity and its place in all of existence: “the collective practice of creating an environment: level by level, step by step…”

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