WHEN false information and fake news rule, we develop a “happy consciousness” of our environment. It prevents us from questioning “facts” and we dialectically resist arguments. We end up consuming false knowledge.
I have been using some of the premises under the rubric of what we call a “closed-universe of discourse” in some of my earlier columns and other writings. I am taking this further by delving into Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (first published in 1964).
Marcuse’s most significant work continues to be as relevant today as the forces of domination in society that he dissected more than five decades ago. Perhaps those forces — populism, fascistic tendencies in some societies, authoritarianism and the techno-capitalist hype, etc — had become stronger and more prevalent in recent years. In a prospectus describing his work, Marcuse (1898-1979) wrote that he deals with certain basic tendencies in contemporary industrial society “which seem to indicate a new phase of civilisation”. This new phase could very well be the over-rated but little understood Fourth Industrial Revolution — much of it can be described as a cognitive transformation in how we see ourselves and the world.
Marcuse was then gazing at tendencies that were subversive to contemporary industrial society in the decades preceding the publication of One-Dimensional Man. Those tendencies have engendered a mode of thought and behaviour which undermines, what he described as “the very foundations of the traditional culture”. These are the repression of all values, aspirations and ideas which cannot be defined in terms of the operations and attitudes validated by prevailing forms of rationality. The consequence is the weakening and even the disappearance of all genuinely radical critique. This is because of the disintegration of all opposition in the established system.
If the policy and academic elites are concerned with the latest “Revolution”, what Marcuse saw then was a similar phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s which he termed as the “advanced industrial society”. One-Dimensional Man contains a theory of society that describes how changes in production, consumption, culture and thought have produced an advanced state of conformity in which the production of needs and aspirations by the prevailing societal apparatus integrates individuals into the established societies.
In the Introduction to the Second Edition of the book in 1991 — reprinted five times, the latest in 2007 — sociologist Douglas Kellner emphasised its significance as Marcuse “reflects the stifling conformity of the era and provides a powerful critique of new modes of domination and social control... It is an important work of critical social theory that continues to be relevant today...”. Marcuse articulated his Hegelian-Marxian concept of philosophy and critique of dominant philosophical and intellectual currents: positivism, analytic philosophy, technological rationality and a variety of modes of conformist thinking. His critical social theory and critical philosophy were inspired by his philosophical studies and his work with the Frankfurt School. The latter-day representative of the neo-Marxist School is 90-year-old German philosopher Jϋrgen Habermas, one-time director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World.
The closing of the universe of discourse refers to an uncritical thinking which derives its beliefs, norms and values from existing thought and social practices, while critical thought seeks alternative modes of thought and behaviour from which it creates a standpoint of critique.
This critical standpoint requires developing what Marcuse calls “negative thinking” — the negation of existing forms of thought and reality from the perspectives of higher possibilities. The practice of popular and academic discourse must presuppose the ability to make a distinction between existence and essence, facts and potentiality, and appearance and reality. We need to segregate the immediate and abstract reality; and the concrete and abstract essence.
Marcuse’s dialectical philosophy could promote critical thinking. Our mediated environment, purveying the various levels of discourse, has failed to provide us with discerning thought and reflection. It is significantly relevant to note that One-Dimensional Man connects with the Frankfurt School’s project of developing a Critical Theory of contemporary society, beginning in the 1930s.
In the history of sociology, the Goethe University Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was the earliest in modern history to analyse the new configurations of the state and economy in contemporary capitalist societies. One of the institutions under the scrutiny of its scholars and theorists was mass culture and communications. They were critical of the cultural and information-producing apparatus operating within the capitalist-industrial democratic system especially in the first half of the 20th century.
And so, they analysed new modes of technology and forms of social control, and discussed new modes of socialisation and the decline of the individual in mass society. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is perhaps the fullest and most concrete development of these themes within the tradition of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. One can trace the genesis of the major themes of Marcuse’s magnus opus in his works from the early 1930s until its publication in 1964. In essays from the early 1940s, Marcuse was already describing how tendencies toward technological rationality were producing a system of totalitarian social control and domination. In the 1941 article, Some Social Implications of Modern Technology, Marcuse sketches the historical decline of individualism from the time of the bourgeois revolutions to the rise of modern technological society.
In alluding to the conditions in the post-European Enlightenment, individual rationality, he claimed, was won in the struggle against regnant superstitions, irrationality and domination, and posed the individual in a critical stance against society. He called this a creative principle in society’s advancement. The undermining of rationality, however, and its submission to increasing domination of ideologies — religious, godless and secular, and authorities — have led to a “mechanics of conformity” throughout society — within and external to the campus. The efficiency of power has overwhelmed individuals. We have lost the power of negation. Resonating the story of man in The Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return in the 13th century Sufi compendium by Najm al-Din Razi, the bondsman, inter alia, sees negation as persistence, not resistance (to power and conformity).
A Murad Merican is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org