TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Now Available! Telos 165 (Winter 2013): Marcuse after Secularism

Telos 165 (Winter 2013) is now available for purchase in our store.

To choose Herbert Marcuse and religion as the topic for a special issue might seem strikingly anachronistic. Formed by the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, Marcuse worked in the OSS during the Second World War, and later, in his mature theoretical works, such as Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man, he grew into the cultural critic who would become a prominent mentor of the student revolt of the 1960s, especially in the United States and Germany. This is a stirring narrative, no doubt, but does it not simply belong to another era? To be sure, historical distance is hardly an argument against intellectual inquiry, and one could certainly dedicate an issue to filling out a detailed account of how this philosopher became a public intellectual in the context of the upheavals of his age. Yet every historical study of the past also bears the marks of the present, including the question marks that punctuate our own, current queries in this issue of the journal. What does Marcuse have to say to us today? That consideration is always germane, but especially in Telos, which has set for itself the task of developing a critique of the contemporary.

It turns out that Marcuse has a lot to say on various topics, but this collection of articles reaches him by following the counterintuitive path of linking him to religion. For Telos, religion is, by now, familiar terrain, since we have explored topics ranging from critical theory and religion, the status of traditions, the critique of the secularization thesis, political theology, and the contemporary, largely British school of Radical Orthodoxy. Yet linking Marcuse to religion is not an obvious choice. We know that he was not, in his private life, a religious person. Moreover, his theoretical work drew significantly from two thinkers who are among the paradigmatic critics of religion, Marx and Freud, although in each case it is fair to say that the critique of religion was hardly the most salient concern. We find Marcuse devoting significant attention in early critical work to the legacy of Protestantism and its impact on the modern understanding of freedom. At that point his stance toward religion is largely consistent with Max Weber’s analysis, viewing the Reformation as the foundation of modern subjectivity, ethics, and labor. Yet while Weber, despite his pessimism, underscored the dynamic accomplishments of the modern work ethic and its attendant cultural formations, Marcuse’s judgment is harsher. Later his work would address religion less directly, although the substance of his cultural criticism can be read as a critique of the hegemonic secularism of modernity, which, in his account, precluded the full development of human potential, individual creativity, and community belonging. So: not a direct advocacy of religion but an interrogation of secularism for extirpating the values that could contribute to a better world. That comes close to an appeal to the traditional contents of religion, although only via the characteristically critical-theoretical access route of a negative theology.

It is worth recalling how Marcuse, as he emerged as a radical cultural critic and a supporter of the protest movements of his age, became the target of attacks. Opponents on the right and in the center vilified him bitterly. (As a footnote to the era, one should not forget how parts of the old and the new left, inclined toward more orthodox Marxism or just plain rougher politics, denounced him as a government agent, an accusation that harks back to his work for the Office of War Information and later the Office for Strategic Services during the Second World War.) A key bone of contention was his thesis of “repressive tolerance,” the suggestion that the seemingly tolerant cultures of western democracies, especially the United States, in fact deployed strategies to achieve an effective marginalization of substantive alternatives to the status quo, while encouraging a generally conformist attitude throughout society, robbed of the capacity for critical thinking. It was certainly not implausible for his critics in the 1960s to protest against his apparent dismissal of the Anglo-American liberal tradition and what they saw as an inability to distinguish between liberal democracies and the really illiberal alternatives: Germany before 1945 or the contemporary Soviet Union.

However, if we take Marcuse’s concerns into our contemporary environment, the suggestion that liberalism can resort to repressive strategies becomes more plausible: extensive and effectively uncontrolled data collection, targeted assassinations, and prisoner interrogations without rights, or, domestically, the politicization of the IRS, the expansion of prosecutorial discretion, the growth of the administrative state, and rule by executive order. These specifically political dimensions dovetail with a degraded public discussion and a press that can no longer distinguish between reporting and editorial opinion. While the internet allows for more diverse and alternative paths for information dissemination, it is also a key venue for data surveillance. Meanwhile even the most venerable platforms of the print media have abandoned the agenda of informing the readership, opting instead to guide it. Enlightenment from above: is that, after all, the core of repressive tolerance? His critique of liberalism may be reason enough to return to Marcuse.

The issue opens with Vincent Lloyd‘s perspicacious inquiry into Marcuse’s impact and reception. He reflects on Marcuse’s seeming fall from fame after the protest era, perhaps an object lesson for those who aspire to the status of public intellectual today. “The academy likes radicalism at a distance,” writes Lloyd, “so theorists who find politics in identity or aesthetics, or neologisms, and who lace their writing with revolutionary-sounding words, are met with high demand in the academic marketplace.” How long that demand lasts is another matter, in a marketplace where critiques of commodities are themselves quickly commodified. Yet Lloyd’s thrust goes in another direction: “Marcuse’s containment is also a result of a less obvious, and seemingly less likely, ideological force: secularism. This is unlikely because, on the surface, Marcuse seems to be more an advocate than a critic of secularism. Indeed, his refusal to robustly engage with the presence, and repression, of religious ideas may seem like one of his critical blind spots, especially in light of the academic energy around secularism and political theology today. But this view is wrongheaded. Marcuse was a critic of secularism, as well as a victim of secularism. We just are not trained to hear his criticisms because the discourses around critical theory and secularism remain so disjunct.” Secularism stands here not merely for the absence of religion or its banishment from the private sphere, but rather for an expansive management of cultural and political possibilities that eliminates radical dissent. Marcuse theorized the protest movement’s uprising against that control as the “Great Refusal,” but history since the 1970s has taken another route, a great recuperation, the containment of protest in the interest of a pacified status quo. “The transformation of claims for community power into the discourse of multiculturalism played a crucial role in pacifying dissenters, and so fragmenting the Great Refusal heralded by Marcuse. Multiculturalism turned dissenters into consumers of a culture that was at once particular and universally accessible. Less discussed, but closely aligned with multiculturalism, is religious pluralism: the management of religious identity and religious communities by the Establishment. Such management, like multiculturalism, at once defangs critical potential and transforms what was once critical potential into market participation.” In a brilliant moment of ideology criticism, Lloyd traces this recuperative secularism into the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington through a reading of the selection of the quotations that surround the figure of King: “Frequently the words justice, equality, peace, and love appear in them. Entirely absent is the robust religious vocabulary that King deployed: God, Christ, law, and sin. This is not only King’s religious vocabulary; it is also his critical vocabulary, the language he used to circumvent the obfuscations of segregationists and liberal reformists alike. That segregation was a sin, that it violated God’s law, these assertions not only express a complaint but more fundamentally call into question the wisdom of the world as a whole—that is to say, they expose and question ideology.” For hegemonic liberalism, King’s reliance on Christian natural law, indeed his Christian faith altogether, is just an embarrassment that needs to be overlooked.

Lloyd analyzes the cultural dynamic that has led to the suppression of King’s Christianity, and he gets there through a reading of Marcuse and his pursuit of a reference point beyond the work ethic and alienated labor. At times, he relied on a Schillerian notion of play, at others on art and aesthetics, but ultimately it became a matter of love. In Marcuse’s own words, “In the exigencies of thought and in the madness of love is the destructive refusal of the established ways of life.” Secularism persecutes that madness, which is the bridge between Marcuse’s critical theory and King’s faith.

Marcuse’s theoretical engagement with religion begins with A Study on Authority of 1936. Written in the shadow of Hitler’s rise, it explores the legacies of Luther and Calvin on German attitudes toward the state and the cultivation of a notion of an exclusively inward freedom. Annika Thiem describes how “Marcuse casts the religious sensibilities transformed by Protestantism not so much as a collective addiction to the narcotic of deferred hopes; rather, his study criticizes how these sensibilities sustain a complicity in upholding oppressive social arrangements through conceptions of freedom and agency even where the religious origins of the social and psychological attitudes are precisely not directly recognizable, but instead live on diffused into secularized forms of attitudes toward social and political institutions.” Yet from these predominately religious-critical beginnings, Thiem traces Marcuse’s complex path through later writings to more aesthetic and nuanced readings of religion. In Thiem’s words: “The political and social impact of religion is not abstractly limited to the theological or moral doctrines, but attains its force insofar as symbols, images, and language are lived and embedded in communal practices and form collective sensibilities. In some respects religion may be more an aesthetic practice than a matter of doctrines and ideas.”

Vincent Geoghegan also begins with Marcuse’s analysis of authority but explores especially the Marxist inflection in the wake of Marcuse’s readings of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, which were published in 1932. Luther’s split between the realms of external authority and internal freedom becomes, for Marcuse, the “Christian bourgeois concept of freedom,” and in effect the fundamental paradigm of alienation. The question of freedom however also leads directly to the controversial “Repressive Tolerance” essay, and Geoghegan reminds us that withholding tolerance is, for Marcuse at this point, by no means an exclusively pejorative agenda: early liberalism had practiced a “partisan tolerance” when doing battle with the representatives of the old regime, and he considers contemporary strategies of intolerance against opponents; later Marcuse would claim that his background concern was the rise of neo-Nazism in West Germany. In contrast to Geoghegan’s focus on political theory, Christoph Schmidt explores the internal trajectory of Marcuse’s theory, beginning with an emphasis on psychoanalysis—primarily in Eros and Civilization—in relationship to a Christological political theology. He traces Marcuse’s logic that moves from an understanding of a “heretical Jesus” who becomes the “last Oedipus,” refusing to reestablish the law of the father and undergoing a metamorphosis into the figures of Orpheus and Narcissus. Freud’s pessimistic anthropology that inscribes repression into the necessary structure of civilization is, in Schmidt’s reading of Marcuse, replaced by the possibility of a distinct emancipation that anticipates the “new sensibility.” Nonetheless Schmidt asks the disturbing question as to whether the reception of the eschatological moment in Marcuse’s narrative may have contributed to the terrorist practices that haunted Germany in the 1970s.

Caroline Edwards locates Marcuse in the German-Jewish “generation of 1914” and its fascination with messianic thinking and eschatology. Marcuse’s version of a romantic anticapitalism particularly emphasized a new temporality as the vehicle to overturn the alienated world. “Marcuse’s most concrete glimpses of a utopian transformation of society—as illustrated through his references to a Schillerian culture of sensuous receptivity to art, an Orphic understanding of deregulated pleasure and defiance of the finitude of death, and the Fourierist transformation of work into play—are predicated upon a delinearization of historical time.” Zvi Tauber also addresses Marcuse’s Judaism, his lack of practiced traditions but his personal identification as a Jew. Tauber leads us through Marcuse’s evaluation of the Holocaust and his problematic willingness to treat it as a metaphor for American policy in Vietnam, which contrasts sharply with his refusal to allow for Heidegger’s use of a similar comparison to the Soviet treatment of Germans in Eastern Europe after 1945. This informative essay also provides insights into Marcuse’s estimation of Israeli politics.

Joseph Diaz offers a provocative and productive juxtaposition of Marcuse and Schmitt as two critics of liberalism. Joseph Winters confronts Marcuse with some post-structuralist criticisms but nonetheless tries to hold on to him as a critic of what he regards as the repressive potential of liberalism. Against the backdrop of Marcuse’s critique of alienated labor and his hopes for technological change, Timothy Haupt offers a concise reading of debates around welfare reform in Germany and finds both some interesting Marcusean ramifications and illuminating religious visions underlying competing programs for the future of anti-poverty programs. The issue concludes with two reviews: Adrian Pabst comments on Marcia Pally’s The New Evangelicals, which traces unexpected political complexities among communities of faith; and Klaus Solberg Søilen looks at David Westbook’s examination of the 2008 financial crisis and the role that the dominant schools of economics played in it.

Comments are closed.