In his book One-dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse considers high art the ultimate form of negation. However, it can not be the most effective form for two main reasons. First of all, the philosophy and inner workings of a technological society – deeply embedded in its members – works directly against the process of negation via high art. It does so by creating a repressive environment, encouraging mass consumption of “junk” culture, discouraging individual creativity and artistic need, and keeping this same cycle going indefinitely. Secondly, the potential power of negation is greatly limited by two types of elitism. Marcuse suggests that negation can be used to free the working class, and he often makes reference to Marx. However, the irony is that high art, as a means of “escape” from the restraints of a technological society, is unfortunately available only to an elite, privileged few. To top it all off, Marcuse is writing from a pedantic, elitist, highly subjective point of view, with little understanding of the working class or how they might best escape through negation.
In describing the environment of a technological society, Marcuse mentions that both subjects and objects must be linked to productivity. This suggests up front that negation via high art is nearly impossible, since the entire philosophy of a technological society goes directly against it. In a technological society, goods – products – are all that is needed for members to achieve satisfaction. They don’t need thoughts, feelings, or aspirations. In this scenario, members of such a society do not produce or create any form of culture themselves. They only consume other people’s productions. And those productions are carefully chosen for mass consumption because they have a genuine market value and they do not go against the established powers.
Marcuse emphasizes that members of a technological society must accept culture that is bad, wasteful, and rubbish. Accordingly, these members of society would be immune against negation from within and from outside the society. Here Marcuse is showing his colours. By condemning popular culture as garbage – quite a sweeping statement – he is demonstrating his elitist point of view. What he is failing to understand is that some members of society may get some measure of escape from the more “popular” forms of culture.
In describing the process by which individuals are left with “junk” culture and stymied creativity, Marcuse says that technological rationality liquidates the opposition and transcends elements in the “higher culture”. In fact, reality refutes high culture and sees it as invalid. According to Marcuse, in contemporary society, any form of autonomous personality, humanism, or tragic / romantic love is unwanted. These traits are viewed as regressive, reversing the development of the society back to the Romantic Age. In such a society, reality surpasses culture. Mankind can do more with technology than he can with culture. Technology makes everything possible. In fact, technology creates so many diversions that people never have time to pursue creative endeavours. In addition, most types of creation require an individual to be alone. This is not possible in a technological society, since people are constantly connected by one method or another – for example, surveillance cameras and the Internet.
The Internet – to use that example – created a larger community of Internet users. However, it actually greatly limits personal time. There is no time for self-reflection when you are on-line. No time for contemplation, feeling, or narration. The Internet also encourages a direct line to mass culture. After all, the main use of the Internet is the advertising and marketing of goods to millions of people – at the click of a button. The Internet is a dream come true for a technological society!
Marcuse points out the aftermath of technological society – the stifling of negation via high culture. By commodifying high culture, its sense of hope and truth is destroyed. The result is a one-dimensional culture. This occurs when technological society has flattened out – obliterated – all oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements. High culture, and all avant garde artistic movements, are then seen as merely another dimension of reality. Such works are no longer negations, but an affirmation of the established order. Marcuse refers to this process as “harmonizing pluralism”, since the most contradictory works and truths peacefully coexist in indifference. Fewer alternatives and fewer contradictions culminate in Marcuse’s idea of a “Happy Consciousness”, where there is no guilt since everything is justified by progress. Once someone is caught up in this vicious cycle, fed continuously by new forms of culture, escape seems impossible. In fact, the failed attempts of others feed back into the system, making it stronger!
This concept of Happy Consciousness – a continuous state of being – is important enough to warrant further comment. As Marcuse describes it, it occurs via the liquidation of two dimensional culture by wholesale incorporation into the established order. This sounds like the strategy for the sale of furniture, and it basically is! The idea is to take art that was once startling and provocative – a source of negations for the artist and those select few who enjoyed and appreciated it – and reproduce and display it on a massive scale. Thus, the large scale production, dispersal, and marketing of objects (i.e., formerly known as “art”) means that it is no longer high culture. The career of Salvador Dali is a good example of this process.
Dali was once an original, provocative artist. Unfortunately, he became a marketable commodity. Although he started out as an important member of the surrealists, he moved to the United States and became obsessed with increasing his wealth. He even went so far as to appear in TV commercials for chocolate bars and Timex watches. In the end, he became a parody of himself – robbed of the truth and value he originally had. Salvador Dali’s story points out that no level of negation is safe from being commodified. The “Great” Dali became familiar goods and services for everyday use.
Happy Consciousness, and its startling methods, came to light in recent times with the controversy over digital reproduction of classic paintings. The original art may be in a museum somewhere, possibly inaccessible to most people, but the digital reproductions are perfect and sell for quit a bit of money. Many artist and critics considered this rank plagiarism and highly disrespectful. Yet, some artists – the ones who are still alive! – enjoyed the added income and extra exposure. The same controversy exists over digitally reproduced collector hockey cards. In technological society, it seems there is no longer any such thing as sentimental value or collectibility. Once again, anything that looks back in time is dangerous and regressive. In fact, technological society invalidates history – just as it invalidates high art. Technology is obsessed with moving forward. Thus, old collector’s items must be mass produced and marketed for the present. It is not acceptable for one collector to possess a rare item – that would be unfair to the rest of society! Thus, technology allows everyone to own a reprint. This “flattening out” of the value of collectibles robs them of all sentimental and emotional value.
The flattening out and commodifying of formerly valuable culture and collectibles is expedited by communications – that is, the media. The media can miraculously throw art, politics, religion, philosophy, ideals, and alien rationality into a blender and come out with a marketable, commercial commodity. It does so by constantly bombarding its audience with images of the commodity, to the point that they can not recall what the commodity used to be made of. Few people in a technological society have time to check the ingredients anymore! And so the vicious cycle of Happy Consciousness continues uninterrupted.
Interestingly, Marcuse points out an odd justification for the commodification of culture by technological societies. It is a classic battle between east (communism) and west (technological society). Technological societies can justify commodifying culture, making it available to everyone, because that is a characteristic of a democratic society. Why should a van Gogh just hang in some art gallery in France? Everyone can have one, albeit a reproduction, to display proudly in their recreation room, next to the painting of dogs playing pool. Thus, the commodification becomes political propaganda. In this manner, Marcuse considers democracy the most effective method of domination. Technology gives the illusion of doing society a favour – that is, ending the class struggle via mass marketing of high culture. If technology did not transform high culture in this manner, it would remain elitist and decadent – feudal aristocratic culture, or bourgeois – far out of reach of the common person. However, the irony is that someone is making a lot of money from this process and that is destined to create a class struggle!
The very fact that democracy is using culture to dominate demonstrates how essential Marcuse regards culture – as both a method of enslavement, or programming, and a possible means of escape. Yet escape from the vicious cycle seems so improbable.
The sole means of escape that Marcuse speaks of is – of course – negation. The definition of “negation” varies slightly according to what philosophical camp you belong to. For example, according to the Gnostic definition, negation is the desire to be elsewhere, the desire to be different. Freud defines negation as independence from both the results of repression and the influences of the pleasure principle. Marcuse suggests that negation occurs when it is impossible for an individual to exist in the universe. Specifically, he believes that we can achieve “rebirth” using art as negation.
Marcuse speaks very highly of art. To him, art expresses the injustice of “freedom”, provides a contradictory ideology to reality, separates intellectual from material productivity, and provides a protective realm for tabooed truths – far from society. He considers art the “higher level alienation”, with high art offering the highest level of alienation possible. Marcuse suggests that negation is a strategy for developing a new consciousness – a “space within” – that transcends historical practice and alienated existence. This is reminiscent of the surrealists and other avant garde artistic movements. Yet, these movements were limited to a privileged few. They appealed to young, educated intellectuals, most of whom came from bourgeois backgrounds – ironically, they openly attacked the bourgeois!
Marcuse’s preference for high culture, and his contempt for the “pop” or “junk” culture of the working class, reveal him to be an elitist. While he lets on that he wants to help the oppressed out of their predicament, he is in fact caressing with one hand and hitting with the other. I wonder why Marcuse even mentions high art as a type of negation when its fruits are so difficult for most to grasp. In general, it seems that most of Marcuse’s ideas concerning high culture as negation are antagonistic with social reality. Art is, in fact, a privilege and an illusion that is far separated from labour and toil.