Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Marcuse's Anniversary + Perry Anderson on 3 Liberal Thinkers and Perpetual Peace

MarcuseDireland, one of my favorite blogs, points out that today is the birthday of the one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, Frankfurt School and former Brandeis and UCSD professor Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). The author of numerous benchmark works, including Eros and Civilization (1955), which creatively and critically integrates Marxian and Freudian thought, and One Dimensional Man (1964), which offers one of the most sweeping and apt critiques of 20th capitalist and communist societies, as well as of orthodox Marxist readings of both, Marcuse served as a central figure for the radical student movements of the 1960s, his liberatory ideas (on surplus repression, repressive tolerance, false consciousness and commodification, the system of internalizing social conformity and capital hierarchies and values, and so on) anticipating and shaping some of the activism and social trends that appeared during that decade and the beginning of the following one. Among the important figures from that era whom he influenced were Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman.

As Direland points out, Marcuse's thought unfortunately has diminished since his death in 1979, in no small part because of the powerful intellectual trend of the 1980s and 1990s of post-modernism (while the intellectual reputations of his peers, especially Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, have remained steady or risen), but many of this works, especially Eros and Civilization, One Dimensional Man, An Essay on Liberation, and the Aesthetic Dimension (which I'd hoped to use in my aesthetics course but didn't have space for), are directly applicable to the society we find ourselves in today. There's a lot more on the Direland site, including a brief remembrance by critic Jeff Weinstein, who was at UCSD during Marcuse's late career sojourn there; a stub (there's no better term for it) by Ariel Dorfman; and links to a site set up by Marcuse's grandson Harold, who teaches at UC Santa Cruz, and a film on Marcuse, which explores not only his philosophy but his personal courage (he came under attack by none other than Ronald Raygun); and more!


For those interested in even more intellectual heavy lifting, Perry Anderson presents an excellent reading, entitled "Arms and Rights," in New Left Review of the views of three major contemporary liberal philosophers--late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, second-generation Frankfurt School theorist Jürgen Habermas (whom I saw speak this past year on this exact topic and on the W administration's actions in Iraq and various European governments' and societies' responses), and late Italian scholar Norberto Bobbio, on the concept of serial war and global peace, and in particular, of Immanuel Kant's idea of "perpetual peace."

I won't even attempt to describe or summarize it, but it's worth looking at, especially if you have any familiarity with Kantian political thought. Here's one quote:

Of the three, it was Rawls who offered the most systematic outline of a desirable international order. The Law of Peoples extends the modelling devices of A Theory of Justice from a national to a global plane. How is international justice to be realized? Rawls argues that we should imagine an ‘original position’ for the various peoples of the earth parallel to that for individuals within a nation-state. In it, these collective actors choose the ideal conditions of justice from behind a veil of ignorance concealing their own size, resources or strength within the society of nations. The result, he argues, would be a ‘law of peoples’ comparable to the contract between citizens in a modern constitutional state. But whereas the latter is specifically a design for liberal democracies, the scope of the former extends beyond them to societies that cannot be called liberal, yet are orderly and decent, if more hierarchical. The principles of global justice that should govern democratic and decent peoples alike correspond by and large to existing rules of international law, and the Charter of the United Nations, but with two critical corollaries.

This is only the beginning, though; he examines their uses of Hegel, America as a superpower, "Nato's moral order," and so much more.


  1. Bloch and Adorno are definitely my fav Frankfurt School guys but Marcuse aint that bad either!

  2. Frank, I hear you. Which Bloch texts do you groove to the most? He's not really talked about that much these days, I think. My fave is THE UTOPIAN FUNCTION OF ART AND LITERATURE. Did you come to Marcuse on your own or read him in school? Just wondering.

  3. Hey John, believe it or not there has been a serious resurgence of interest in Bloch and Adorno in the field of queer critique/theory. Bloch's discussion of utopia has a real utility for contemporary discussions in cultural studies about Afro- and-Queer Futurity. The Spirit of Utopia is my all-time favorite (the opening sentence of that text makes my heart melt!-its legendary!) but The Utopian Function of Art is also near and dear to my heart. Jose Esteban Munoz, Chair of the Department of Performance Studies at NYU and a graduate of the Literature Ph.D. program at Duke, is actually finishing up a book on Bloch, Adorno and queer performance. The name of the text will be "Cruising Utopia: Notes of Queer Futurity". NYU Press is publishing it in 2006.

    As for Marcuse, I'm most interested in his discussion of utopia and "aesthetic-erotic ways of life" in his essay "The End of Utopia." Other than that, I've soaked up less Marcuse than the other Frankfurt School boys.

  4. Hey Frank, I know Jose very well. We were on the board of CLAGS together for a while, and I remember when I first came to NYU. I'm glad to hear about his upcoming book. I haven't seen much use of Bloch in Afro-futurist writings, so if you could direct me to those, I'd love it. I actually use some Bloch in a my SEISMOSIS project, and his work and Adorno's (along with Benjamin's, Lacan's, Deleuze's, and Marcuse's) informs my first novel. Have you ever read any of Michel Onfray's work? It carries forward some of the liberatory aesthetic-erotic work of these philosophers, but proceeding especially from Greek classical texts (since I think his grounding was in the work of the Cynics and Epicureans). Pretty interesting work, especially the texts specifically on pleasure, etc.

  5. Oops, I meant to say, I remember when *he* first came to NYU. I also wondered if you've ever checked out Bloch's THE PRINCIPLE OF HOPE, which is a mammoth compendium based on Hegel's conception of Geist but which has some fascinating material in it, particularly the bits on "Anticipatory consciousness" and the analyses of cultural commodities and their capacity for containing elements of utopia and how to read and identify them? So many things keep popping into my head...oh well, as always, thanks for the dialogue!