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).

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