Min Song’s Strange Future

Song, Min. Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Song defines the strange as “the bearers of a materiality that demands narrative invention,” something that “discourages thinking about collective solutions to widely shared problems. As a result, the presence of the strange speeds a retreat into atomistic individualism, a celebration of unregulated wealth accumulation, and a fearful support for authoritarian rule” (3). In its effects, the strange is analogous to the type of racial melancholia Anne Cheng talks about, which leaves the subject stuck in an entanglement with a lost object. The strange, however, differs from other similar metaphorical insights, in that it collapses the possible imagined futures, into a pessimistic cyclical repetition of the injuries of the past which we are doomed to repeat.

Song locates the strange in the effects of the Los Angeles Riots and the events leading up to it, where a loss of a middle class through gentrification and urban poverty, racialized poverty for blacks in L.A. slums, and the influx of non-white immigrants, led to a utopian narrative of Los Angeles as the multicultural capital of the world, a utopian dream torn apart during the articulations of violence and inequality screaming from the Los Angeles Riots. The Riots affected the emerging generation’s ability to trust the state and national ideologies, but most importantly affected the ability to read history in a linear narrative of cause and effect. The Riots, to Song, represent an overdetermined event of history, where, following Althusser, the overdetermined represents “any historical event [that] is the product of causes that exceed what we can discern”:

To refer to the Los Angeles riots per se suggests exactly a moment of overdetermination: a dizzying array of historical causations and unrelated sensory perceptions that do not add up to anything coherent, a meta-event that can only be talked about in terms of our inability to comprehend what has happened, a throwing up of arms in exasperation that such scenes of violence could have been motivated by any kind of logic at all (13).

The fragmentation of an historical event leads to an absence, a stand-in for what cannot be captured or made sense of as a whole. Where the official histories fail at representing a historical moment, the strange then erupts within culture, where, as Lisa Lowe states, “we conceive and enact new subjects and practices in antagonism to the regulatory locus of the citizen-subject, by way of culture that we can question these modes of government” (16). In light of an overdetermined historical event, art must narrativize and interpret life, and narratives of invention then “erupt” within culture to attempt to understand that moment within our own historical moment.

Song invents a host of metaphors in order to articulate affective formations, chief among them our familiar mode of analysis, trauma, which “imprints a groove that leaves one reliving the violence as if in a waking ceaseless dream” and concerns “the body’s removal from the flow of causes and effects, the body’ lacking awareness of temporality” (20). What is promising about his methods are the inclusion of new metaphorical lenses, some, like “pain,” seemingly outdated already, while others, like “wounding” and “injury,” are noticeably dissimilair from trauma and can be used to think of affective formations originated by more than historical gaps. Wounding, for instance,

articulates a disjuncture of interpersonal experiences, a disparity among perspectives accountable by group formations, a structural inequality lived as individual isolation and personal suffering that cannot be communicated across subjective gulfs no matter how technologically sophisticated we become (21).

To be wounded then is to be alienated from one’s own social group, from the total disjuncture of like-minded individuals, an “evisceration of a social body that has little possibility of mending” (21). Surrounding all of these metaphorical symptoms is haunting, which is “an apparition of the weak, the disempowered, the forgotten, the excluded, the murdered, and so forth that intrudes upon a present too willing to sweep disturbing plaints of injustice into the dustbin” (22).

Wounding is an especially prescient metaphor at a time when many members of the diaspora find themselves on trips of return to the lost homeland, perhaps to secure unremembered trauma, but also to further investigate sites of wounding. Wounding has a double-meaning to Song, first as “an expression to transgress restrictive boundaries, to enable freer intercourse with those not like oneself, and ultimately to found a greater sense of community than what is already permitted” (102). This first meaning can be seen in the diasporic subject’s desire to find a new sense of belonging within the Others of the homeland, in an uncertain kinship and shared race. The second meaning of wounding, Song depicts as imagining a kind of contact with this Other in an effort to build community as “always accompanied by severe pain.” The hope of connecting with one’s own social group is met, time and again, with a type of physical violence, placing the subject in a vulnerable position.

A language of analysis that seeks to make meaning out of the strange is also a figurative language of metaphor, meant to “hold us firm in the belief that to say something is complex is not to say that something cannot be understood” (22). A historical understanding produced through metaphor holds, of course, no claims to objectivity, but rather, is useful for “confront[ing] us with our own worst fears by refusing to ignore what cannot, in any case, be ignored in the long run: the estrangement at the heart of contemporary life” (24). It is the confrontation with fear—as Clough would say, the fear that we do not desire to know that which cannot be known—that figurative language may represent the overdetermined historical event, not to represent the event itself, but so that the affects produced by the event can more accurately represent our present.

The language of analysis that Song proposes is utilized to its fullest in his depiction of the Korean disapora in Chang-rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, which suggests that “Korean Americans are not individuals removed from like subjectivities and slotted into the machinery of a homogenizing social order. Rather, they have a shared history of trauma that is potentially powerful enough to bond this ethnic group under the heading of diaspora” (177). These events are the numerous colonizations and injustices that have occurred in Korea’s long history. Trauma here becomes “the paradoxical source of a group’s identity,” where trauma itself produces a “culture of shared traumas” (178).

Trauma for the “less well-off” must especially find solidarity within shared trauma and shared exploitation, since for them, “diaspora is the name of an unsettled identity that is forced upon them through compulsory travel across national boundaries and that places them in occasional coalition, or alternatively in conflict, with similar socioeconomically situated peoples” (181). This dispersal process is enabled by the need for cheap labor in overdeveloped countries, and by the systems of mobility within globalization. Yet, diaspora is also “a powerful signifier for futurity,” since to move for a better livelihood, is still to partake in the act of movement, so as to better one’s own conditions in a place of higher wages and better access; futurity is always being considered, and therefore, it is hope rather than pessimism about the future that the migrant laboring subject must hold. This is the meaning of diaspora that Song receives through an affective reading of Native Speaker, the diaspora in the Greek sense of the word, meaning a “casting of seeds.” Diasporas, at least, heteronormative diasporas, lead themselves to a “moment and time to the germination of a new generation of adults who, in entering the prime of their professional lives, seem ready to participate fully in the discussions, struggles, and movements now taking place on national and international stages” (197). The hope of the diasporic subject, then is not only for the future, but the transgenerational.


Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

In 1991, for the first time, Korean women came out as former comfort women for the Japanese Imperial Army. These three elderly women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government for “the systematic recruitment and abduction of Korean women for military sex work” (5). After more than fifty years of complete silence, the world awoke from a “collective amnesia” to a traumatic event that had for so long been an unknowable historical moment in Korean national consciousness. As Patricia Clough before her, Cho here expands upon what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, in their edited volume The Shell and the Kernal: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, call “trangenerational haunting,” to emphasize how the ellipses of the past are ontologically of the present, living on in collective trauma. A transgenerational haunting, to Cho, is when “a unspeakable trauma does not die out with the person who first experienced it. Rather, it takes on a life of its own, emerging from the spaces where secrets are concealed” (6). The haunting of the Korean comfort women and the yanggongju, Korean sex worker of United States military bases, is thus a transgenerational haunting, due to its long period of silence, where the events of the past grew into an inarticulatable imaginary, in which the yanggongju  “became overinvested with conflicting feelings of grief, hope, shame, and rage” (7).

Cho finds that Abraham and Torok’s analysis of unsolved trauma within the holocaust shows that the entanglement with a traumatic loss is “produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden” (11). The unspoken trauma is a historical ellipses, an imaginary, unknowable void where the lack of knowledge turns into a ghostly presence. Cho finds that these ghost are “engendered in the private realm of family secrets, secrets that are inextricable from the abuses of political power” (11). Where the historical narrative of the nation excludes minority history, or access to those histories seem inaccessible or unknowable, to Cho, the burden of bearing witness lies in the family history, where the individual’s uncertain kinship by the disavowal of historical trauma produces an anxiety from not being able to forget that which one does not know.

The figure of the yanggongju, when spoken, brings shame onto the Korean country and the families involved within. Cho here does not attend to the ideological formations inherent in these families that necessitated this silencing, nor in the genealogy of sexuality and the importance of reproductive females to produce the racial purity of the nation, wherein sex work and coerced sexual labor with the colonized race becomes a historical event that must be silenced. With so little attention to domestic sex work and trafficking within Korea itself, a massive industry that undergoes a similar silencing by the state, Cho seems to find domestic sex work part of the norm, while sex work towards a racialized other of the Korean nation is what must produce a transgenerational haunting.

As children of the erased figure of the yanggongju, a figure constituted by trauma itself, the Korean diaspora is thus entangled with an uncertain kinship with the yanggongju. Using the method of machinic vision developed by John Johnson, where “what is perceived is not located at any single place and moment in time, and the act by which this perception occurs is not the result of a single or isolated agency but of several working in concert and parallel,” Cho seeks to see and speak of trauma by composing a scattering of “images, affects and voices” (166, 24). Making sense of this multiplicity is one way to read the silences, listening to what speaks as an assemblage of lost histories. Cho again follows Clough’s lead and finds in Jacqueline Rose’s work that haunting occurs not just down generations, but also across them, “not inside one family, but creating a monstrous family of reluctant belonging” (31). Rose’ analysis of the haunting of the Holocaust “implies the dissolution of the boundaries of individual bodies and takes us into the realm of the social, moving trauma beyond the family unit and moving the notion of a familial unconscious beyond bloodlines” (30). How far this transgenerational haunting can go is an interesting inquiry, for Cho’s own subject in the discourse of the yanggongju at times appears to be the Korean nation, the Korean diaspora, the Japanese, the United States, and, even, the world in its public conceptions of the Korean war. Who this book is written for becomes a startlingly difficult question to pursue.

In order to “flesh out the Ghost,” Cho must turn the haunting of the past into a generative counter-memory to the nationally produced historical narrative. Through the theory of transgenerational haunting, Cho hopes to demonstrate how a silenced trauma can produce “disruptions, articulations, visibilities, assemblages, and new configurations of kinship” (33). An affective belonging thus comes from a collective trauma, a collectivity that perhaps binds diasporas together. As Cho states, “the bodies of diaspora, and particularly the Korean diaspora, are constituted by unremembered trauma and loss” and that “the ghost is distributed across the time-space of the diaspora” in order to create an assemblage body to speak the traumas that could not be seen (40, 166).

Patricia Clough’s The Affective Turn

Clough, Patricia Ticineto, and Jean O’Malley Halley. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.


Paraphrasing Spinoza, Michael Hardt states that  “the mind’s power to think corresponds to its receptivity to external ideas; and the body’s power to act corresponds to its sensitivity to other bodies”

the term affective labor is meant to…grasp simultaneously the corporeal and intellectual aspects of the new forms of production, recognizing that such labor engages at once with rational intelligence and with the passions or feeling (xi).

Affective labor allows us to “consider [affective labor] together with the various other forms of labor whose products are in large part immaterial, that is, to think together the production of affects with the production of code, information, ideas, images and the like” (xii).


Clough is clear that the affect turn is linked to “the production of multiple subjectivities and multiple modernities expressed in new forms of history, often presented at first in autobiographical experimental writings by diasporic subjects. As she says:

The affective turn throws thought back to the disavowals constitutive of Western industrial capitalist societies, bringing forth ghosted bodies and the traumatized remains of erased histories. It also sends thought to the future—to the bodily matter and biotechnoscientific experimentation (3).

These experimental forms of writing render the traumatic effect of the long exclusion from writing, which haunts the writing as a motive force. These writings are traumatizing as they call into question the truth of representation, the certainty of memory, if not the very possibility of knowledge of the past” (6).  Clough expands upon what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, in their edited volume The Shell and the Kernal: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, call “trangenerational haunting,” where the “forgetting of trauma is passed down from one generation to another, mesmerizing multiple egos, putting all in a transgenerational bodily trance” (7). The haunting of a lost or forgotten trauma, one deracinated from a history across groups of inter-related generations, Jacqueline Rose sees as potentially “creating a monstrous family of reluctant belonging” (qtd. in Clough 7).

A family of reluctant belonging is still thus a family, monstrous as it might be named, but a community of similarly affected subjects who find shared subjective states found in a collapsed notion of time, where the future becomes only a constant reliving of an inescapable and unknowable past, a pathological state of entanglement with the lost object. Clough takes Deleuze’s concept of “the crack” from his book The Logic of Sense to rethink memory, image, time and trauma beyond the collapsing of time, where the crack in time is “a potential for swerving in terms of inheritance, the potential for swerving to the future” (13). There is no “overcoming” of the present because the past, as an unknowable and lost “lack” entangled with the ego, is ontologically among the present, and “is not even past,” as Faulkner has said. Clough compares this feeling with Lacan’s imaginary state, where “it is unclear whether one is in the past or the present, resulting in a haunting in time” (14).

Finally, Clough takes up Negri’s “Value and Affect” essay, where Negri emphasizes the new forms of migration and labor due to a phenomenon of affective labor, where “labor finds its value in affect, if affect is defined as ‘the power to act’” (79). Affective labor—the immaterial labor of the service industry, of housemaids, nannies, sex workers—emphasizes the value placed on dispositions of the worker, on the moods and affective capacities of the worker, such that the “use value of labor cannot be measured” (24). This immeasurability of affective capacity leaves room for what Clough calls a

worldwide meshing of biopolitics with an affective economy. There is a marking of populations—some as valuable life and others as without value. Increasingly it is in these terms that differences such as those of ethnicity, race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation become materialized. Some bodies or bodily capacities are derogated, making their affectivity superexploitable or exhaustable unto death (25).

The trend of migrant affective labor coming out of the third world, specifically in Southeast Asia, in the form of domestic and service labor in global cities of the first world, makes the union of an affective economy and biopolitics an especially prescient global phenomenon. Furthermore, regimes of the affect are also exported from the first world to the third, sometimes in the form of social management and human rights work that emphasizes “empowerment” rather than material access to public goods.

Plunging Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race. Race and American culture. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 2001.

It is hard to ignore racial politics today, the grievance of minorities without histories, the guilt and anxiety of social histories that prove, time and again, the hypocritical ideals of the nation. The effort to attend to the contradictions of the nation have exposed wounds in national ideology, and there is a social and legal articulation of grief emerging throughout the nation.

Anne Cheng means to attend to these wounds, to theorize the melancholia of race (not just minorities) in an attempt to articulate an inarticulable loss. As Cheng says:

if grievance is understood to be the social and legal articulation of grief, then it has also been incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language—a language that may seem inchoate because it is not fully reconcilable to the vocabulary of social formation or ideology but that nonetheless cuts a formative pattern (x)

The psychical experience of grievance is articulated through the languages to law and society, rather than hidden within them. Yet, racial melancholia, which Cheng calls “a theoretical model of identity that provides a critical framework for analyzing the constitutive role that grief place in racial/ethnic subject formation,” puts emphases on the “lack” of the racialized subject, through “the interjection of a lost, never-possible perfection,” leaving the subject in a suspended position through a culture’s rejection and yet attachment to the racial other (xi). Racial melancholia and a vocabulary for grievance directs our attention to take seriously “the more immaterial, unquantifiable repository of public and private grief that has gone into the making of the so-called minority subject and that sustains the notion of ‘one nation’” (6).

The psychoanalysis depiction of melancholia as a consumptive condition of “endless self-impoverishment,” lends new methods of analyzing social acts as “entangled with loss” and a “legislation with grief.” Here complaints, bickering and insults are given more agency in situations of highly asymmetrical power, where such speech acts are really plaints, utterances of grief or sorrow, where loss becomes exclusion, and a denial of the very object that has been lost and incorporated within the subject provides no outlet for grief in the day-to-day of the subject.

The project of racial melancholia is close to a project that essentializes the subject into a “diagnostic” literary theory, where the negotiation with pain becomes the very reason to segregate, and all such diagnoses become sociological descriptions of a race/ethnicity. Cheng is all to aware of this pitfall, and insists that one must treadcarefully in this psychoanalytic vocabulary, using literature to “tease out the complex social etiology behind the phenomenon of racial grief,” rather than as symptomatic of a descriptive melancholia (15). Melancholia is thus more than a sadness or affect, but “a structural, identificatory formation predicated on—while being an active negotiation of—the loss of self as legitimacy,” as both a “sign of rejection and a psychic strategy in response to that rejection” (20).  The project of racial melancholia then is to find new forms of agency within an affective formation, and to pinpoint the ideological fissures that reinforce or engender the affective form. Therefore, at the risk of meeting essentialization headlong, one “must begin to acknowledge the deep nexus of psychical negotiations being engaged and develop a political vocabulary accordingly” (21). As Cheng states at the end of her Introduction, “the stringent fear of essentialism…prevents certain categories from being discussed, categories that, for all their inherent instability, nevertheless operate in powerful, fantasmatic ways” (27). Essentialism then is taken as a guise of subjectivity, and the psychoanalytic subject as a historical being produced by a haunted history. In this sense, we must always be altered to context.

For Asian Americans, the grief seems to originate from their specific history of racism “directed against immigrants and Asian labor,” economic competition, and between “immigrant and slave relations to American nationality” (22). Asian Americans have straddled the binary between black and white, facing a European inheritance of Orientalism that places the Asian American subject within a “truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization” (23). The Asian immigrant, as the direct targeted racial group of immigration acts, is rethought within a melancholic paradigm as not simply a sadness, but conditioning their very livelihoods and shaping subjectivity.

Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Perverse modernities. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

For Globalization Studies, Gopinath’s work is significant, as it offers a queer diasporic perspective that enables a simultaneous critique of nationalism and of hegemonic forces of globalization. Gopinath provides straightforward examples of similar homogenizing regimes that effect both the nation state and Indian diasporas. In chapter four, for example, Gopinath locates the erasure of queer female diasporic subjects in the translation of films from Bollywood to the diaspora, as queerness becomes uncontainable in the slippages of female homosociality to exotic homosociality to homoeroticism. What emerges through the dialectical form of these chapters and her feminist queer critique is a different model for understanding the schisms of past and present within the diaspora. Rather than seeing the homeland and the new home as the traditional and the modern, Gopinath emphasizes both as sites of heteronormativity, and poses the embracing of marginality and displacement as a way of imagining diaspora differently:

The cartography of a queer diaspora tells a different story about how global capitalism impacts local sites by articulating other forms of subjectivity, culture, affect, kinship, and community that may not be visible or audible within standard mappings of nation diaspora or globalization (108).

Female queerness becomes an alternative hermeneutic that is able to offer up a critique of global capital without falling into transcendental notions of the transnational and diasporic. Gopinath instead deploys the “scavenger methodology” elaborated upon by Judith and Jack Halberstam, to emphasize queerness in a diverse array of texts and “queer reading practices” that expose heteronormative structures in logics of the nation, domesticity and diaspora.

To Gopinath, diaspora is not a unidirectional flow that insists on a romantic look at the past and the homeland, but rather, both the Diaspora and the nation become the other’s Other; the diaspora insists on its transcendence from “given culture” through a new hybridity, and the nation points to the lack of morality, belief and tradition in the diaspora. Yet, as Gopinath shows through her comparative reading of Bollywood and diasporic film, elements of queerness and homoeroticism in national forms, like Bollywood dance numbers, are in fact excluded and erased when translated to cultural production within the diaspora. For Gopinath, the distinctions between the Diaspora and the Nation as modern and traditional may be an instance of bad faith, as both discourses produce heteronormative ways of thinking by putting the queer female subject under a constant erasure, requiring the presence of the queer female subject so that she can be made absent. Gopinath points out this erasure as a patriarichal norm that diaspora does not transcend, but rather, is caught up in an entanglement with, as diasporic women are recast as the carriers of tradition and cultural purity.

The desire to see the Diaspora as modern and the local culture as traditional supplements a narrative of development within global capitalism, which insists on the diasporic subject as a worker easily adjustable to metropolitan means of production. A queer feminist theory disrupts this narrative, insisting on the blurring of public and private realms, where the private “space of the home,” according to Gopinath, “is not recognized as a critical component of South Asian diasporic public culture” (45). The home, for diasporic communities, is both the homeland and the domestic private space where tradition is cultivated. A queer critique, however, displaces both notions of home, and rethinks it as an excluded space where the inability to belong within the rules of domestic and national normativity renders the subject as queer. Thus home becomes rethought of as a location where queerness is currently being experienced, where homosociality slips into homoeroticism; home is a place of new possibilities.

This critique thus discovers fissures of public and private space as it comes into conflict with globalization: “The space of the home” Gopinath tells us “is hardly private but rather a key site of labor within the global restructuring of the home.” To focus on the home then is also to recenter the spaces of global capitalism from the skilled labor forces of the metropole to the surplus labor force in the depressed ethnic enclaves who inhabit the ethnic sweatshop, the migrant factory and, most importantly, the home itself. It is due to the developing male subject of diaspora discourse that domestic labor in depressed inner cities is placed within a ‘hidden economy,’ while the public visibility of the diasporic subject, in parades and skilled workplaces, encourages a developmental narrative. Gopinath performs a feminist queer critique in an effort to disrupt such narratives of liberation and development, disrupting the ideologies that mask the racialized gendered labor awaiting female immigrants in the global city, which utilize “hierarchical gendered arrangements of the familial space” in factories and ethnic sweatshops (52). Gopinath calls for a queering of globalization as a new form of transnational politics that will fundamentally shift the way we see the home, not as a sphere of tradition and culture, but one where the real everyday struggle of the worker is reproduced.


In her review published in the Journal of History of Sexuality, Amy Brandzel criticizes Gopinath for a “lack of specificity:” first, for how to “read” a particular form (whether it be film, literature or music), or formulating what a queer reading entails besides looking for elements of queerness. Second, for the meaning of diaspora itself, which Brandzel claims as being used by Gopinath to provide greater privilege to diasporas located in the economic North, in first world, English-speaking countries, equating them with diasporas in Pakistan, while diasporas in Sri Lanka are seen in terms of “Indian hegemony”. This lack of specificity of Diaspora leads Brandzel to claim that “To equate diasporas of the economic North with those resulting from Partition seems to erase the different ways in which migration occurs, nations consolidate themselves and their borders, and epistemes form in relation to these processes” (147). The ethnologist Naisargi Dave finds that Gopinath “overemphasizes the active role of the reader,” alluding to a lack of specificity about a queer methodology. This lack of methodological specificity perhaps runs the gamut for Virinder Kalra in her review published in the Feminist Review, where she opines that “under the guise of ‘public culture,’ it seems that geography and history can be collapsed to allow for a kind of literary tourism” (182). Kalra’s main concern is the absence of a rationale for the parameters and basis for the types of comparisons that are made between Bhangra music, Chutney dance and films like Hollywood/Bollywood, which do not seem inter-related. Though all of these cultural productions come from an Indian diaspora, for Kalra, to flatten all cultural form as “Indian diasporic cultural form” ignores how diversive South Asian diasporas are, not just religiously between Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, but also along national subjectivities from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, as well as cultural barriers between say Bengalis, Punjabs, Maharashtans and Gujuratis, which also does not account for language barriers, barriers of class, and the transculturations of South Asian diasporas with their variegated “host” nations. As Kalra claims, “this ‘view from America’…[of] south Asian diasporic cultural outputs always renders them as somehow authentic and exotic, reminiscent of much maligned anthropological treatises” (182). Kalra finally finds that the greatest difficulty of the text is a refusal to engage with the critiques of identity politics that seem to demand her project be more than a recovery—“in what senses,” she asks, “does the queer female identity provide any kind of solace from the problematics of class, geography and migrant status”? How does queerness get co-opted with projects of terrorism and Islamaphobia?

Plunging Marcuse’s Affirmative Character of Culture

Marcuse, Herbert. Negations; Essays in Critical Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

“The Affirmative Character of Culture”

If the appearance of the Egyptian civilization, which occurs over two thousand years prior to the Greeks, seems like one of history’s greatest mysteries, then one must be lacking in the perspective of the historical materialist, who might explain the entire span of pyramids, obelisks and pharaohs as having two geographical explanations. The life force of the Nile, combined with the easy access to neighboring peoples for slavery, were perhaps the two main factors that spoiled the Egyptians and thus spurred the appearance of cultural beauties that lay beyond necessity. Herbert Marcuse states that the world was once split into “the materialism of bourgeois practice on the one hand and…the appeasement of happiness and the mind within the preserve of ‘culture’ on the other”, yet it seems needless to say that before there was civilization enough to provide a written history, life was defined by agriculture and necessity (89). The Egyptians thus show the emergence of a culture that “signifies the totality of social life in a given situation” wherein the ideational culture and the culture of material reproduction “form a historically distinguishable and comprehensible unity” (94). Yet this unity is broken apart by the very geographical factors of the Nile and slave labor, which acted as the conditions of possibility for Egyptian civilization, emphasizing that “man’s first concern is the struggle for the preservation of mere existence” (96).

If culture to the ancient Egyptians grew out of the satisfaction of necessities, and therefore the appearance of a non-working class of elites, then one must ask why such a culture of ideal pyramids, obelisks, and gods permeate the minds of the elite, rather than, say, the exhaustion of sports or work for work’s sake? Marcuse says that “in antiquity, the world of the beautiful beyond necessity was essentially a world of happiness and enjoyment” (96). This longing for happiness can also be seen as the desire to fulfill a common ‘lack’, which Marcuse describes as a type of ‘anxiety’:

Anxiety stands at the source of all idealistic doctrines that look for the highest felicity in ideational practice: anxiety about the uncertainty of all the conditions of life, about the contingency of loss, of dependence, and of poverty, but also anxiety about satiation, ennui, and envy of men and the gods. (96)

Anxiety here functions as the semblance of a ‘lack’, of certainty, of fulfillment, of satiation, interest and most of all, meaning. As is seen in Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, the new non-working class, deprived of the daily struggle of the working subject, experiences anxiety in the loss of meaning, since meaning cannot be derived from another, and therefore must create an “other” through meaning can be derived.

As culture emerges from the non-working elite, so does the fulfillment of the lack of anxiety, which produces meaning towards a being of the transcendental imaginary—in this case, the Egyptian Gods that were exalted in every aspect of Egyptian civilization. Thus the ‘objective’ aspect of culture, which Marcuse calls ‘affirmative culture’, can be seen inherently as a response to the lack of meaning experienced through the anxiety of the non-working class. Such an anxiety itself comes to engulf all classes, utilizing the transcendental ‘other’ inherent in culture as the objective, higher power that gives meaning to all people, and by giving meaning, exalts “the individual without freeing him from his factual debasement” (103).

“Separating the useful and necessary from the beautiful and from enjoyment initiated a development that abandons the field to the materialism of bourgeois production on the one hand and to the appeasement of happiness and the mind within the preserve of ‘culture’ on the other” (89).

Affirmative culture

“By affirmative culture is meant that culture of the bourgeois epoch which led in the course of its own development to the segregation from civilization of the mental and spiritual world as an independent realm of value that is also considered superior to civilization. Its decisive characteristic is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable worth that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself ‘from within,’ without any transformation of the state of fact…their reception becomes an act of celebration and exaltation” (95).

Affirmative culture to Marcuse means “a world to be brought about not through the overthrow of the material order of life but through events in the individual’s soul. Humanity becomes an inner state….[that] exalts the individual without freeing him from his factual debasement” (103).

Anxiety –

The common desire for belonging cannot be sufficiently theorized here, except to say that the origins of this desire may spring from a type of anxiety of existence (Heidegger), or as Marcuse says, “anxiety stands at the source of all idealistic doctrines that look for the highest felicity in ideational practice: anxiety about the uncertainty of all the conditions of life, about the contingency of loss, of dependence, and of poverty, but also anxiety about satiation, ennui, and envy of men and the gods” (96).

New culture

When all links to the affirmative ideal have been dissolved, when in the context of an existence marked by knowledge it becomes possible to have real enjoyment without any rationalization and without the least puritanical guilt feeling, when sensuality, in other words, is entirely released by the soul, then the first glimmer of a new culture emerges” (117).

Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”


Who is the man of the crowd? In Baudelaire’s poetry, it is the flaneur, the man who surrenders to the intoxication of the city and the commodity, surging among the crowd from one street to the next. The flaneur is an intoxicated subject, one whose eyes scroll through commodities like a piece of metal in an assembly line as it is propped and “perfected” with new ornaments in an effort to become complete. Likewise, in Walter Benjamin’s essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” he positions the flaneur as a passionate spectator:


the crowd [as] his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.  His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense job to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.


The “immense job” of completing themselves, to set house—to live in the multitude—is thus no more achievable than the ideal “completeness” in a drug addiction, in the intoxication of the flaneur as a scroller among commodities. Though his passion is merged with the crowd, he at once “becomes their accomplice even as he disassociates himself with them” (172). Benjamin then makes some attempt to distinguish the flaneur, who walks the city in order to experience it, from the conforming, one-dimensional man of Marcuse’, the “man of the mob”. Where the flaneur functions as a deliberately aimless pedestrian, the one-dimensional man of the mob is akin to Benjamin’s “boy of the street corner,” an expert in the social eco-system of the streets and who is yet subject to the ever-present uniformity of the crowd and its potential to mob violence. To Marcuse as well as Benjamin, in the mob mentality commodities turn from being an external object to an extension of the self, other “parts” that built on a “one-dimensional man’s” completeness: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile…social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.”[1] The synthesis of the man with the commodity creates a one-dimensional man, a man of the mob, while it is the hollowness and the egotism of commodities as external objects that is reflected in the flaneur and the figure’s countless attempts to fill in the empty void through the arcades.

Is it possible then that the “loss of self” in the urban crowd has thus transferred, in Marcuse’, to the “Crowd of commodities”, and it is no longer the crowd that becomes an extension of the self, but rather technological objects and commodities as the very whole of which the self becomes only a part. In other words, rather than a piece of metal strolling on a conveyor belt, has the man of the mob finally experienced that “Completeness?” Has he filled in the void so completely with the commodity that what is left becomes a disintegrating self, a self inebriated by television, which comes to act, as David Foster Wallace put it, as an “anesthetic against loneliness?” The loneliness of the crowd continues even when that crowd is a more perfect commodity form.

The use of this mass production of commodities that sets the attitude of the flaneur has yielded new ways for the Bourgeois artist to become a producer through the mediated influence towards the crowd. Benjamin saw this method reflected in Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” Brecht defines his dramaturgy as “the careful choice of theme and formal structural means, to inculcate in the audience the detached, distancing attitude of the historian towards the events portrayed.”[2] Brecht sought to utilize the very means of creating the “one-dimensional man” into a more reflective individual, a cigar smoker, and as Brecht would say, a judge and arbiter of values.


[1] Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. 11.

[2] Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.