Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 6: Marcuse and One-Dimensional Man

July 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

Once the gods, once God, helped us not to belong to the earth where everything passes away, and helped us, our eyes fixed upon the unperishing that is the superterrestrial, to organize meanwhile this earth as a dwelling place. Today, lacking gods, we turn still more from passing presence in order to affirm ourselves in a universe constructed according to the measure of knowledge and free from the randomness that always frightens us because it conceals an obscure decision. There is, however, defeat in this victory; in this truth of forms, of notions and of names, there is a lie, and in this hope that commits us to an illusory bond, to a future without death or to a logic without chance, there is, perhaps, the betrayal of a more profound hope that poetry (writing) must teach us to affirm. (33-34)

– Maurice Blanchot, “The Great Refusal,” The Infinite Conversation


After writing his Habilitation on Hegel under Martin Heidegger Herbert Marcuse emigrated Germany to the United States in 1934 to escape the Third Reich. Although he distanced himself from Heidegger when Heidegger joined the Nazi part, Jurgen Habermas (among others) has claimed that one cannot fully appreciate Marcuse’s early work without understanding Heidegger’s influence on ontology interacting with history. Marcuse became a U. S. citizen in 1940, and he worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War. He later came to be known as the “father” of the New Left in the United States, a title that he disavowed. As a member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse and others helped to shape countercultural thought in the 1960s. Though their thought was in many ways misinterpreted by the youth movement in the 1960s, this does not diminish the importance of their influence on psychedelic aesthetics.

In conjunction with my other lectures this summer, I want to emphasize the temporal elements of Marcuse’s thought as it relates to concepts of history and what we may think of in 21st century as the “virtuality” of history. In doing so, I am thinking not only of German philosophy in the Hegelian tradition but also a French thinker like Henri Bergson, whose thinking regarding temporality was so influential in the early 20th century. For Henri Bergson, temporal relationships cannot be reduced to spatial geometry.  In Time and Free Will, Bergson describes the difference between duration or “lived experience” and reflective consciousness, particularly with the inability to reduce qualitative sensation to quantifiable descriptions.  The mind must step away from the lived experience in order to account for it.  The concept of duration is famously and concisely described in the following passage from Creative Evolution:

Though our reasoning on isolated systems may imply that their history, past, present, and future, might be instantly unfurled like a fan, this history, in point and fact, unfolds itself gradually, as if it occupied a duration like our own.  If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, wily nilly, wait until the sugar melts.  This little fact is big with meaning.  For here the time I have to wait is not that mathematical time which would apply equally well to the entire history of the world, even if that history were spread out instantaneously in space.  It coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like.  It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. (7)

Affect and emotion generally work in terms of duration. When we represent time spatially, we disrupt the continuity that life is always emerging in.  Our moments of reflection, our critical gaze, brackets our life experience just as the lens of a camera or a microscope bracket their subjects.  And even as our consciousness brackets, we go on living, changing, unable to repeat a past.  We endure constant change.  We know now that our cells in our bodies die but our consciousnesses and memories remain. (Bergson’s constant flux can also be seen in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s combining of intuition and “Spontaneity” – see my blogpost on Emerson and phenomenology below) (27).

Subjective consciousness – intuition – becomes the way of getting at experience, but consciousness for Bergson is not simply “awareness.”  For Bergson, consciousness has two modalities: first is lived experience, or duration; second is reflective awareness, constituted by our ability to bracket our attention by disrupting the constant flow of lived experience.  Memory, scientific method, and analytical thinking all belong to reflective consciousness.  We cannot access our experience of the world without intuiting the world.  Duration, for Bergson, like intuition for Husserl, precedes consciousness but can only be discussed from the hither side of consciousness and is for that reason problematic.  While Bergson believes the world exists outside of human consciousness, we move toward it as if it were virtual.  The world is not a product of consciousness, but phenomenologists in the early 20th century began to “bracket off” the world in order to reduce their study to the interiority of consciousness itself because the structure of consciousness and intuition affects and always already filters any sort of experience of the world.  We can only get at the world by way of intuition.

Psychedelic drugs certainly expand perception and ego, creating indistinction between self and world. As stated in a previous lecture, Aldous Huxley’s theory of psychedelics and the psychedelic experience are based on a Bergsonian notion of consciousness as filter. To a certain extent this thinking survives in brain science today in terms of the ways we understand the right and left hemispheres of our brains, the way the right side collapses time and the left side requires linear thinking for language and a sense of isolated being to maneuver in the world (Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk is a nice description of this, describing her stroke). In an emphasis on internal experience and an indistinction of self from world, psychedelic aesthetics, as I have argued, emphasize the perennial. In doing so, they seem on the surface to be at odds with history, even while psychedelic researchers appeal to positivistic science in order to fight legislation blocking research. As Nicolas Langlitz has argued in Neuropsychedelia, even in laboratory settings in the 21st century employing the “hardest” of scientific methods, questions of spirituality arise. Langlitz’s own answer is to do what he calls “field work in the perennial,” where traditional distinctions between philosophy, science, and religion no longer apply. Over the summer, I have been using literary study of psychedelic aesthetics to accomplish a similar kind of fieldwork, but I have used the backdrop of Political Theology and the idea of the postsecular to arrive at a similar place to Langlitz. I have argued that studying psychedelic aesthetics necessitates a postsecular approach to spirituality, citizenship, and the State. I have argued that psychedelic aesthetics challenge notions of liberal citizenship buffered by modernity and what I have called the European Imaginary. I have also argued that one cannot understand what is at stake in psychedelic aesthetics if one does not understand the historical forces that shape the European Imaginary being critiqued. Today I want to point to Herbert Marcuse’s undeniable influence from Europe on the psychedelic aesthetic movement and larger social movements of the 1960s.


In a famous essay written in the early 1960s and entitled “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse points out in relation to dialectical processes that much “pseudo-art” becomes the instrument of oppression. He is drawing on a long tradition of modern Art in Europe as a critique of the Bourgeoisie to do so. This is an avant-gardist frame. Art is dialogical in the sense that it speaks to a particular moment, ceasing to resound as it becomes commodity. For the avant-gardist, the critique of consumer culture does not mean that aesthetics and poetics are not seen as valuable to political deliberation. Even the work of Theodor Adorno, Marcuse’s companion from the Frankfurt School, which casts an entirely bleak view on consumerism, still longs to find an aesthetic answer. In Minima Moralia (1951), Adorno claims, responding to the emerging nuclear age and the holocaust,

what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will.  Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people.  Rilke’s prayer for ‘one’s own death’ is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out. (233)

Death itself has ceased to have meaning, and Adorno radically critiques subjectivity and poetry in a Romantic tradition that would look to a subject for the potential to find liberation. That subject has – at for these twentieth-century aesthetic theorists – ceased to matter, despite the fact that they are still informed by that Romantic tradition. Theirs is a critique of liberalism, a liberalism that relies on a certain version of subjectivity.

But this critical theory itself, in its attempt to look at dialectical processes and to claim the ability to theorize at all, also risks continued reliance on subject-object relations that characterizes the European Imaginary a relation where modern humans are alienated from nature an in that alienation come to exist for themselves in terms of intellectual abstractions. Hegel was aware of this in his Philosophy of History, characterizing the work of historical study in the 19th century as being necessarily abstracted narrative that also, at least for him, plays out universal Reason in History. Hegel is often uncritically reduced to being an advocate for European ethnocentricism, and even Aldous Huxley distances himself from Hegelian thought in Island (which we are reading for next week).

But it is important to understand the theological nature of Hegel’s arguments about history that have been neglected by secularist approaches that want to divide philosophy from religion. Hegel argues:

That development of the thinking spirit which has resulted from the revelation of the Divine Being as its original basis must ultimately advance to the intellectual comprehension of what was presented in the first instance, to feeling and imagination. The time must eventually come for understanding that rich product of active Reason, which the History of the World offers to us. It was for awhile the fashion to profess admiration for the wisdom of God as displayed in animals, plants, and isolated occurrences. But, if it be allowed that Providence manifests itself in such objects and forms of existence, why not also in Universal History? This is deemed too great a matter to be thus regarded. But Divine Wisdom, i.e., Reason, is one and the same in the great as in the little; and we must not imagine God to be too weak to exercise his wisdom on the grand scale. Our intellectual striving aims at realizing the conviction that what was intended by eternal wisdom, is actually accomplished in the domain of existent, active Spirit, as well as in that of mere Nature. Our mode of treating the subject is, in this aspect, a Theodicaea — a justification of the ways of God — which Leibnitz attempted metaphysically, in his method, i.e., in indefinite abstract categories — so that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil. Indeed, nowhere is such a harmonizing view more pressingly demanded than in Universal History; and it can be attained only by recognizing the positive existence, in which that negative element is a subordinate, and vanquished nullity. On the one hand, the ultimate design of the World must be perceived; and, on the other hand, the fact that this design has been actually realized in it, and that evil has not been able permanently to assert a competing position. But this superintending vows, or in “Providence.” “Reason,” whose sovereignty over the World has been maintained, is as indefinite a term as “Providence,” supposing the term to be used by those who are unable to characterize it distinctly — to show wherein it consists, so as to enable us to decide whether a thing is rational or irrational. An adequate definition of Reason is the first desideratum; and whatever boast may be made of strict adherence to it in explaining phenomena — without such a definition we get no farther than mere words.

Hegel negotiates his own thought with regard to an emerging secular sphere, but he also interestingly argues against a notion of God as wholly “Other.” His study of Reason takes on a kind of immanence here that we cannot dismiss easily.

Hegel’s most famous pupil, Karl Marx, took this immanence to a greater extreme in what became known as dialectical materialism. Herbert Marcuse and the majority of the Frankfurt school employed Marxist critiques of society, even though critics of Marcuse argue about whether or not his philosophy was truly Marxist or inherently Liberal. This question must take into account how Marcuse critiques the notion of subjectivity. egel’s approach to HistoryWhat one must keep in mind is that his critique is a critique, and not an erasure, of subjectivity itself.   The fact that it is a critique of historically constructed subjectivity makes it also an aesthetic critique. As I have said, Marcuse’s critiques particularly inform psychedelic aesthetics in the United States, and most notably in the political activism of his student from Brandeis University, Abbie Hoffman. It is within this complex process of critique that psychedelic aesthetics informed by critical theory does its work.

In One Dimensional Man (1964), perhaps his most famous work, Marcuse theorizes that, originally, rights and liberties were defined in opposition to existing political structures during the Early Modern era. He seems at first, then, to adhere to a Weberian secularization narrative. Over the course of history, however, Marcuse says those rights and liberties lost their revolutionary power because they became institutionalized. As a result, advocating for freedom, which was once considered critical, has, by the early 1960s, become purely dogmatic. The possibility of freedom from basic needs that modern industrialized society enables creates the need for a different more realized freedom. But because independent thought has been stripped of its critical position, society becomes complacent and accepts the status quo. In this system, non-conformity seems useless and irrational. Marcuse goes on to claim that the ‘freedom’ prized for individuals to become actors in a market that thrives on business has not necessarily always been good:

If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. (2)

Such freedom beyond necessity would, for Marcuse, truly liberate autonomous subjectivity, and it is for him well within the possibilities of modern society. But he says that rather than liberation occurring, the opposite happens because of increasing demands on material and intellectual culture. He argues, “Contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests” (3). Bleak as this may seem, Marcuse believes that the situation can be reversed and that machines are merely stored human potential. Here he is directly echoing Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology.” Following Heidegger’s view of enframing and human engagement with nature as standing reserve, the presence of mind necessary must be one of the processes of poetics as bringing forth. This is a mode of being in a process and not necessarily concerned with product; however, Marcuse’s attention to Heidegger’s enframing [Ge-stell] implies a future-orientation that would take environmental and resource concerns into account. The aesthetics necessary would be inherently politically deliberative.

What becomes necessary for Marcuse are new modes to realize liberation, modes beyond the economic, the political, and the intellectual. This is not the older liberation necessary for the growth of the liberal subject articulated by Kantian aesthetics, which inherently rely on a subject – not because Kant was wrong but because that kind of freedom is no longer revolutionary; it no longer liberates. According to Marcuse there must be a new kind of liberation that moves beyond the autonomous subject. These modes must be realized in “negative” ways:

Economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no control. (4)

He is quick to point out that “the most effective and enduring warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” For Marcuse, human needs are historical and shaped by society, and we must learn to distinguish between “true” and “false” needs: “Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to the category of false needs” (5). True needs, on the other hand, consist of nourishment, clothing, lodging at the attainable level of the culture. Beyond these needs, no tribunal can judge what freedom is or how it can be satisfied; it’s up to the individual. In modern industrial society, “the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste” (7). The social controls manifest in a “one-dimensional” society. Marcuse implies that one must think beyond juridical decisions concerning subjectivity. This would also imply a movement beyond a conception of the nation-state based on sovereignty and decision-making, or at least a re-oriented view as to what subjectivity would look like outside of the subjectivity determined by liberal society. One can undoubtedly hear echoes of Marx beneath this, however, in that freedom from Liberalism would be the result of prior efforts to liberate in the same way that for Marx, the revolution would come only after the industrial accumulation of wealth necessary to sustain society.

However, it is also not a matter of liberalism versus communism or economic enframing. We cannot just say he is reacting to the Cold War. Marcuse wants something beyond that altogether, and that is what eventually leads him to end his book with the passage from Blanchot quoted above. Marcuse says with regard to Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,”

The struggle for the solution has outgrown the traditional forms. The totalitarian tendencies of the one-dimensional society render the traditional means of protest ineffective – perhaps even dangerous because they preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty. This illusion contains some truth: “the people,” previously the ferment of social change, have “moved up” to become the ferment of social cohesion. Here rather than the distribution of wealth and equalization of classes is the new stratification characteristic of advanced industrial society. (256) 

Marcuse is saying, with the same expression of negativity discussed above, that the concept of a “people” must be transcended as much as a concept of economics or state. Again: “Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no control” (4). Implicit here is an overcoming of European subjectivity and an overcoming of the liberal nation-state that relies on that subjectivity. But Marcuse points to Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,” and for Blanchot that task is accomplished by a return to “poetics” or “writing”; thus, it is an aesthetics informed by Heidegger’s return to ancient philosophy pre-Kant. In the same way, Antonin Artaud – another major European influence on psychedelic aesthetics – called for an acknowledgment of the motivating forces beneath culture, “growing within us like a new organ, a sort of second breath” (The Theater 8): both moves are nostalgic returns to enchantment through an overcoming of subject-object relationships.

If one misses this deep critique of European subjectivity in these works, as many people who read Marcuse superficially in the 1960s did, they are likely to have a very different take on Marcuse’s closing words with regard to “The Great Refusal.” Consider how the following words might read to a person unaware of the historical conversation Marcuse is engaged in:

Underneath the conservative popular base is a substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals that it is a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive of civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death. Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period. (256-57)


One could superficially believe that Marcuse here is speaking to the civil rights protests occurring in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he is certainly speaking to that on one level, but it is with a much longer historical critique in mind. It is helpful to see how he is drawing on the same criticism as Artaud.

Marcuse takes Artaud’s (and others like Camus) criticism of plague-infested, bourgeois European culture and applies it to American consumerism. He claims, “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters and slaves. Free choice among a variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain cultural controls over a life of fear and toil” (8). The illusion of choice is a manifestation of false needs. Such illusions mask class differences and nullify class struggle.

If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population. (8)

In modern industrial society, people “find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split level home, kitchen equipment” (9). American consumerism for Marcuse becomes the ultimate manifestation of Weber’s instrumental rationality: “In the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”Preceding Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of habitus (see lectures 1 & 2), Marcuse believes that historical-social forces shape the subject in a way that denies the existence of the individual self, and the result of this is an immediate identification with society. Identities are shaped to “buy in” to a particular notion of progress. This identification is not an illusion; it actually shapes perceptions of reality, even if the form is false. The numbing qualities of one-dimensional society can feel good:

It is a good way of life – much better than before – and as a good way of life it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations, and behaviors that, by their content transcend the established universe of discourse and actions are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. (12)


This is quite similar to Marx’s conception of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Such an opiate for Marx numbs the pain of class inequality. Marcuse sees these trends in particular with the growth of positivism and “operational” conduct, and even religion – traditional or bohemian – serves the status quo as just another codified behaviorism. He says this is true both in capitalism and in communism. In both cases, progress is determined by the powers that be. So, “the industrial society which makes technology and science its own is organized for the ever-more-effective utilization of its resources” (17). Where is there room for enchantment in Marcuse’s bleak outlook?

Marcuse clearly builds his theory out of the German tradition, and particularly his habilitation on Hegel and his master-slave dialectic, which he wrote under Martin Heidegger. In the dialectic, the master, by enslaving his subject, creates a relationship based on need. The master (or the master’s children) forgets how to perform deeds for himself, creating dependency on the slave. Eventually, the slave realizes this and becomes the new master. Similarly, over time (not instantly) people lose sight of their ability to perceive their own freedom as human potential. They begin to see freedom in terms of something like money, which is contractually earned but ultimately invisible. Money is a real thing, but it exists invisibly and through a social agreement that that’s the way things are going to be. Even though this system is very real in the sense that it controls people’s actions, it is a false consciousness. It is false in the sense that it exists in the imaginary and is maintained by a social belief system built over time. It is real but false. The image of this system is ideology.An ideology, in Marcuse and the Marxist tradition, is a social concept, and one does not simply “break free” from the social concept by simply “thinking outside the box.”

Marxist thinking implies that the belief in an ideology is tacit and unconscious. It is not something people think about on a daily basis. People’s actions and deeds, nevertheless, contribute to the social manifestation of the ideology. Like a religion, an ideology shapes a perspective for the way the world naturally exists. But it is the very idea of nature that is in question here. One’s “natural” view becomes shaped by ideological forces that get replayed and socially construct reality. This process of making the imaginary real is called reification in critical theory. Marcuse builds on Hegel’s dialectic and Marx’s idea that in capitalist society there exists something between the ruling class (master) and the working class (slave): the middle class or bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is made up of people who have benefited from the capitalistic society. In the United States in the early 1960s, Marcuse implies that individualism is so seamlessly built into the cultural ideology that people are fed by an economic machine which sells them their very identity and sense of meaning. To not have buying power is to not exist or be whole. At the same time, the idea of a middle class with a limited version of buying power supported by a belief in false needs essentially slows down Hegel’s dialectic, preventing both synthesis and progress. The result is an ahistorical and ever “present” society perpetuated by false needs. I want to suggest that this ahistorical moment also invokes the perennial in psychedelic aesthetics and that the conflation of perennialism and one-dimensionality blocked the social progress of the psychedelic movement. Entrenched within secularist narratives, psychedelic critiques have been deprived of the quality of enchantment that was truly liberating because that enchantment itself was coded as play and the inability to be serious. It is with this idea that I now want to return to Marcuse’s turn to Maurice Blanchot’s “Great Refusal” at the end of his book to find what may be left of enchantment.

One-dimensional society is based on the crisis of imagination that cannot think its way out of that very system. Given Marcuse’s suspicion of consumerism, what may seem surprising is that, as in Artaud, the basis for Blanchot’s argument is aesthetic, and Marcuse had to have been aware of this. For Blanchot, it is about poetry, not just as something merely “made” or constructed, but poetry as a possibility for a different way of being. Blanchot’s sentiment is strikingly similar to that which Artaud articulates – that it is not so much about a move toward transcendence, but a return to the materiality of presence and “presence of mind,” occupied by an aesthetic practice. Both Artaud and Blanchot acknowledge the function of poetry as a presence that understands writing not as the creation of immortality and memory but as the death that refuses immortality in favor of life punctuated and ended and formed. It is a double refusal: a refusal of life in death and also a refusal of immortality after death – a favoring and acknowledgement of the form. This is the heritage inherited by psychedelic aesthetics from European thought. It is the “great refusal” re-characterized by Leary’s famous phrase, “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out.” And while it is easy to see the refusal in “drop-out,” the enigmatic and aesthetic qualities of the first two imperatives are hazier without this background.

Artaud writes with respect to the poetry performed by the theater of cruelty that language must cover every sense and gesture:

To give objective examples of this poetry that follows upon the way gesture, a sonority, an intonation presses with more or less insistence upon this or that segment of space at such and such a time appears to me as difficult as to communicate in words the feeling of a particular sound or the degree and quality of a physical pain. It depends upon the production and can be determined only on the stage. (46) 

For Artaud, such poetry must be embodied in performance. Like Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,” however, and informed by his peyote experiences, such performances invoke primeval states and put the performer in touch with his or her spiritual “double.” It is not in the physical performance alone, but in the performance’s gesture toward a re-enchanted spirit.

In our course discussions, we have recently been taking the notions of enchantment and magic seriously as critique. Some of you have also mentioned that enchantment seems to be “in” right now. We see an explosion in practical approaches to healthcare that may once have been deemed “New Age.” A few students here are involved with the school of Gnosticism in town. In popular culture there is certainly no shortage of fantasy and enchantment in various media. Is this merely the appropriation of once-liberating gestures into one-dimensionality, or is something else at work?

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§ One Response to Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 6: Marcuse and One-Dimensional Man

  • Mark Arend says:

    Roger, very sorry to miss today’s class… I went to a sweat lodge in Boulder at noon, fully expecting to make it down for class but was shocked to see 4:30 PM when I looked at the clock after finishing. I’ve been enjoying Marcuse very much and am grateful to be introduced to his seminal book, still so relevant. Thanks for this fascinating series, will see you next week!

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